Edward Snowden's revelations on the extent of spying by the National Security Agency on foreigners, allies and Americans should be raising larger questions about the Leviathan surveillance state the United States has built. The NSA's giant information vacuum is diminishing America's standing, and distrust is tarnishing America's reputation, alienating world leaders and the country's most trusted allies.
Snowden's most recent release reveals that the NSA has been tapping into Google and Yahoo overseas fiber-optic cables — without the companies' consent or knowledge — and copying a vast flow of email communication and other personal data of foreigners and Americans. By gaining access to the servers of giant Internet companies abroad, the NSA bypasses legal restrictions on mass surveillance in the United States. The NSA is operating dangerously unmoored from legal oversight.
Most troubling for Americans is the NSA program that sweeps up domestic telephone metadata of millions of Americans. Senate bills would end the program or add constraints. But that is just one program within a $52.6 billion "black budget" for fiscal 2013 that funds 16 spy agencies and 107,000 employees with virtually no public accountability. President Barack Obama, who promised a transparent administration, has not reined in the surveillance colossus America created post-9/11. There has been no public discussion on protecting privacy and balancing that with security concerns. As the president has said, what is technically possible in the surveillance world is not necessarily what should be public policy.
America's surveillance programs may be tactically beneficial, though that is hard to tell with all the secrecy, but they are causing strains in vital strategic relationships. Obama is having to assuage European and other allies who are furious to learn that the NSA has been spying on 35 world leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Obama an earful upon discovering that her cellphone was tapped. The fallout is causing Europeans to consider fining U.S. communications giants that cooperate with NSA spying.
To some degree everyone spies on everyone else, but America's obsession with collecting intelligence, coupled with its technological reach and storage capacity, has gone too far. People abroad and at home are questioning whether these are the actions of a representative democracy committed to civil liberties and open government.