A breaking story this weekend had the British media breathlessly informing the world of the shocking fact that US intelligence has been in the habit of spying on some of its closest allies, including Germany’s respected chancellor, Angela Merkel. Of course, Edward Snowden’s leaks had already revealed the facts of US spying on allies back in 2013. This time around, the news was no longer focused on who spied on whom (clearly the Americans on everyone else) but on which third party in Europe was involved. The designated culprit is Denmark, whose “military intelligence agency helped the US to spy on leading European politicians.”
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The Guardian’s Europe correspondent, Jon Henley, cites the testimony of the Danish defense minister, Trine Bramsen, who though “reportedly informed of the espionage in August last year” has now decided to speak up and reveal the contents of a classified report. According to the BBC, Bramsen was unhappy with the news, leading her to complain to Danish public service broadcaster DR that “systematic wiretapping of close allies is unacceptable.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The usual suspects, as opposed to unusual suspects (enemies)
To bring home the point that American spying was systematic and that more than one ally was concerned, the BBC helpfully adds: “Intelligence was allegedly collected on other officials from Germany, France, Sweden and Norway.” This was followed by a reminder that this might be old news dating from that moment eight years ago when Edward Snowden spectacularly helped a benighted humanity understand the specific ways by which the National Security Agency (NSA) conducted its essential business. It apparently consists of making the US more secure by making individual leaders of other countries feel less secure.
The reason such old news may now be considered new news has to do with the history of Washington’s denials and its promise to reform its sinful ways: “When those allegations were made, the White House gave no outright denial but said Mrs Merkel’s phone was not being bugged at the time and would not be in future.”
Curiously, The New York Times editorial team apparently relegated the story to the category of “all the news that isn’t quite fit to print.” Some may surmise that the “paper of record” avoided printing it not because it was old news but because doing so might displease its most reliable source of all its news about the outside world, the intelligence community. All the intelligence agencies have been in the habit of sharing with The Times their special version of the truth, providing the publication with its most exciting copy, from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to Russiagate. The risk of upsetting that vital source would be too great.
On the other hand, it may be that like former UN ambassador and Trump loyalist Nikki Haley waxing indignant because Vice President Kamala Harris failed for a moment to pay her sanctimonious respects to past military heroes on Memorial Day, The Times deemed inappropriate to call attention to American dirty tricks targeting allies. And this on a day dedicated to celebrating those Americans who have sacrificed their lives to defend “our freedoms,” one of which appears to be the freedom of our intelligence agencies to unceremoniously violate the freedom of our allies.
Paradoxically, The Times did publish a story in April revealing, with no sense of alarm, that “the nation’s surveillance court has pointed with concern to ‘widespread violations’ by the F.B.I. of rules intended to protect Americans’ privacy when analysts search emails gathered without a warrant — but still signed off on another year of the program.” This reassuringly tells us that the intelligence services are treating close allies no differently than they treat fellow Americans.
Unlike the Times, The Washington Post did cover the story but put the gentlest shine on it, highlighting Merkel’s statement that “I’m reassured that Denmark, the Danish government and the defense minister have said very clearly what they think of these matters” as well as implying that the Germans themselves might have been complicit. The message? Everyone cheats. No one is innocent. It’s important to forgive and forget.
The Germans reacted with vigor to the story, which concerned not only Chancellor Merkel but also Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as well as Peer Steinbrück, the opposition leader at that time. Steinbrück called it “a political scandal.”
Since France was also concerned, Le Monde also weighed in on the story. While quoting French President Emmanuel Macron, who deemed that such practices were “not acceptable between allies, and even less between European partners,” referring to Denmark’s complicity, Le Monde highlighted the insistence of the French political class that reflection was required before deciding on actions to be taken. With regard to what they describe as a “potentially grave” crisis, they prefer to take the time to review the facts. Clement Beaune, France’s secretary of state in charge of European affairs, requested more information before jumping to conclusions. Interestingly, the French seemed much more concerned by the implications of Denmark’s complicity than by American spying.
What this scandal reveals above all is the uncertainty that exists concerning what it means to be an ally, let alone a close ally. During the Cold War, there was never any ambiguity. We are now living in the era of nation-state individualism. Can any nation trust any other nation? Furthermore, can any nation trust the US to act any differently than to spy on everyone else as if they were an enemy? By insisting that the problem lies with Denmark, France appears to be resigned to the idea that American paranoia is so pervasive that rather than call it out, it would be more rational simply to define it as the norm and find a way of living with it.
Two decades ago, when drumming up support for his global war on terror, US President George W. Bush famously framed his sales pitch in these terms: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” This is a variant on the old Biblical chestnut, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Few remember that two days after 9/11, Hillary Clinton scripted the line Bush would use later when she intoned, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.” If Clinton and Bush think in precisely the same terms, it explains a lot about the continuity of US foreign policy under the two supposedly opposing parties, Democrats and Republicans.
For the intelligence services of nations with imperial reach — and the US in particular thanks to its “exceptionalism” — rather than insisting that if you are not with us, you are against us, it would be more accurate to express their true thoughts with this variant: “If you are not us, you are against us.” But The Times story about the FBI spying on Americans tells us that even if you are us, you may be against us. Everyone is a suspect. Only the ruling elite can trust its own.
George Bush apparently had his own criterion for judging whether any other nation was “against us.” The president who has been the most successful in promoting fear as the prime motivator of foreign policy described the minds of the terrorist enemies: “With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way.” The world may someday pardon Bush for his circular logic. The terrorists stood against the US not because the US stood in their way, but because — if Osama bin Laden’s testimony is believed — the US stood and marched, with booted feet, on their lands.
American imperialism — from Iran and Guatemala in 1953 to Vietnam a decade later, to Iraq 50 years later and to Libya another decade further on — has consistently insisted on standing in other people’s territories. With a foothold in nearly every location considered critical, not only is the US standing in the way of other peoples and nations, we now know that it is also listening to and recording their conversations.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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