Common sense about spying

The Economist has a rather good Leader about the NSA mess. Excerpt:

For a start, it turns out that some of Mr Snowden’s evidence was radically misinterpreted: much of the hoovering has in fact been undertaken by European spies on non-Europeans and then passed to the NSA. This was to protect the West from Islamist terror, which the Americans are often best-placed to investigate. That European leaders did not know of this before complaining to Mr Obama suggests that their lack of intelligence oversight is at least as bad as his.

Second, spying on allies is not inherently wrong. Germany and France have broad overlapping national interests with America—but they occasionally clash. Before the war in Iraq Jacques Chirac, then France’s president, and Gerhard Schröder, Mrs Merkel’s predecessor, sought to frustrate America’s attempts to win over the UN Security Council. Europeans spy on Americans, too, as Madeleine Albright found when she was secretary of state. Politicians think inside information gives them an edge, even when negotiating with friends. After today’s outcry has died away, that will remain true.

But the promised gains from espionage need to be measured against the costs and likelihood of being caught. In the past, electronic spying was seen as remote and almost risk-free. In an era of endemic leaks, however, the risks of intrusive eavesdropping are higher. Relations between America and its allies have suffered. The row may get in the way of international agreements, such as a transatlantic free-trade deal. It could lead to the fragmentation of the internet, enabling more government control by countries such as China and Russia. Bugging someone as vital to America as the German chancellor is too important a decision to be left to a spymaster. It is a political choice—and, without a specific aim in mind, it will usually be a no-no.

America should make it clear that it takes abuse of intelligence-gathering seriously. Officials who lie to Congress should be fired. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, who flatly denied that the NSA collected dossiers on “millions of Americans”, is damaged goods. NSA employees who break the law should be prosecuted, not (as in cases of those caught spying on their personal love interests) simply disciplined. America should also reaffirm that for the NSA to pass secrets to American firms for commercial advantage is illegal. Anyone concerned by Chinese state-sponsored commercial espionage cannot complain if they are thought no better.