THE KERFUFFLE between the United States and Europe over revelations about clandestine National Security Agency (NSA) activities across the pond is fizzling out almost as quickly as it flared up. President Obama initially made matters worse by observing, at a news conference in Africa, that European intelligence services were probably trying to snoop out his breakfast menu. But then he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone, producing a joint promise of high-level consultations last week. Despite earlier implied threats from French President François Hollande, there will be no delay in the start of transatlantic free-trade talks, and Mr. Hollande has let it be known that he is okay with that.
Still, it would be wrong to mistake the surface calm for a fundamental fix. The European public remains unsettled by the prospect, real or imagined, of U.S. phone and Internet surveillance. Since European leaders respond to public opinion — and since there’s probably more to come from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s document trove — we probably have not heard the last of this issue. It’s important to understand Europe’s complaints and to separate the legitimate ones from the other kind.
There was indeed much political theater in the European protests — and rather hypocritical theater at that. The flap began with a Der Spiegel article, published Sunday — and not yet denied by the United States — claiming that the NSA collects metadata on millions of private European communications, especially in Germany. Also, the NSA allegedly bugged European Union diplomatic offices in Washington and New York and monitored phone lines in Brussels. Mr. Hollande said Monday that France “cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies.”
Of course not — except that since World War II, the United States has adhered to a no-spy rule only with respect to English-speaking allies such as Britain and Canada; Paris, Berlin and Rome know that. By Der Spiegel’s own account, E.U. officials discovered the NSA wiretap in Brussels five years ago. As for Euro-griping about U.S. surveillance of broader telecommunications traffic, much of it emanated from Ms. Merkel’s political opponents, in Germany and elsewhere, who saw it as an opportunity to weaken her drive for reelection in September. Those complaints lost force with the revelation in Le Monde on Thursday that French intelligence stores masses of telephone and Internet metadata, just as the NSA does.
Amid this opportunism, there is nevertheless a kernel of genuine concern. Much of what the NSA is accused of doing is unlawful in Germany; it would be surprising if citizens in that country did not demand a response from their government. Many Americans were unhappy to learn that their own government was gathering telephone metadata on a wholesale basis, even after Mr. Obama cited his legal authority to do it. Why should we expect Europeans to accept such surveillance when it is conducted by a foreign state without any legal cover at all?
Properly understood, Europe’s cries of outrage are cries for help. Leaders such as Ms. Merkel of Germany want to pursue common interests with the United States — the trade deal especially but also the fight against terrorism. It will be hard for them to do that unless the United States offers more than lip service in response to legitimate public concerns about its intelligence activities.
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