Opinion writer

What’s this about governments spying on their closest allies?

We called it “the bubble.” It was a 12-by-15-foot acoustic conference room made of clear plastic and aluminum. There were at least five inches of space between the walls of the bubble and the walls of the room in which it was located. The bubble’s plastic walls, ceiling and floor allowed visual inspection for electronic listening devices, or “bugs.”

As an extra security measure, a noise-generating machine was installed in the outer room to prevent interception of any discussions of classified information within the bubble. The outer room was secured by a combination lock, the code known only to my office.

The first U.S. “bubble” was installed after hidden microphones were found in American diplomatic missions in Moscow, Prague and elsewhere in the 1960s.

Our bubble, within a room on an upper floor of the U.S. Embassy in Bad Godesberg, West Germany, was a countermeasure against possible technical penetration by the Soviet KGB and the East German Stasi. But Eastern Bloc countries weren’t the only concern.

Our bubble allowed classified discussions to occur beyond the hearing of our host and ally, the-then Federal Republic of Germany, and our friends down the road in the French and British embassies.

That was nearly 50 years ago.

This year, in my current capacity, I was sitting in the office of an ambassador in Washington when a member of his staff alerted him to an important call. There was a phone on the ambassador’s desk. But he left the room to take the call.

It turns out that his prime minister was calling from overseas. The ambassador went to a secure location in the embassy where he could conduct a confidential conversation.

True, he was in the capital city of his nation’s closest ally. But the matter to be discussed was for the ears of his countrymen only, U.S. friendship notwithstanding.

Today, as the United States has been doing for decades, close allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere take similar precautions even when their missions are in friendly countries.

Gentlemen may know that it is bad form to read each other’s mail or to eavesdrop. But in diplomacy and national security, the desire to know what another country is up to tends to overwhelm any sense of rectitude.

Consequently, the European outrage over snooping among friends may be slightly overdone. That is an entirely separate matter from the National Security Agency’s (NSA) vacuum-cleaner-like collection of the communication records and metadata of millions of Americans, including private citizens and, apparently, foreign citizens both here and overseas. The scope of that intelligence-collection program, disputed by Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, this week is the cause of uproar around the country and in Congress. There is still much to sort out and probably reform.

The monitoring of foreign leaders’ phone calls, however, is closer to the larger deed of spying on allied governments.

Which takes us to an indelicate question: Why is a foreign leader, a repository of a nation’s secrets, communicating by text messages and smartphone?

The most junior Foreign Service officer or government civil servant entrusted with sensitive information assumes that e-mails and cellphones are susceptible to eavesdropping. What makes a head of state behave as if he or she is immune from monitoring?

Which brings up another tactless question: Why haven’t the security services of those foreign leaders developed countermeasures to prevent successful spying on personal communications?

The danger here isn’t simply that the NSA may have overstepped its bounds with respect to U.S. allies. The intelligence services of the foes of Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and the like may have the capacity to listen in on high-level conversations.

The naiveté of outraged foreign leaders and their vulnerability to spying are nearly — but not totally — as surprising as the scale of NSA snooping.

The NSA revelations, meanwhile, should not draw attention away from the revelations’ primary source: Edward Joseph Snowden.

How in the world is it possible that a high school dropout with a GED, a community college student who didn’t graduate, a failed Army recruit and security guard can catapult himself into a CIA information technology job, an overseas posting and subsequently a $200,000-a-year job with a company contracted to do NSA work in Hawaii, where he was able to gain access to the crown jewels of America’s secrets?

Whistleblower, traitor, patriot: Debate the labels all you want. The government has charged him with espionage. Take it up with Attorney General Eric Holder.

I want to know how Snowden got his hands on so much of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence and was able to flee the country, all within three months.

Damage? Done by the U.S. government to itself.

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