The Obama administration's massive spying program undermined America's national interests again this week when France condemned the wholesale snooping as "totally unacceptable." While the French government's hands are not entirely clean, the powerful language from Paris highlights the threat of a public backlash against cooperating with Washington. Harming U.S. alliances across the globe makes no sense at a time when America is looking for more partners to help ease violent situations in the Middle East.
The French Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation after a report Monday in Le Monde that the U.S. National Security Agency had collected 70 million digital communications on French phones in a monthlong period beginning in December. The report, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor whose disclosures have brought intense scrutiny to the Obama administration's surveillance practices, did not identify whose conversations might have been intercepted. But it appears the dragnet reached far wider than a circle of terror suspects, involving conversations and text messages of French business and political leaders at a volume that averaged about 3 million data intercepts a day.
France deplored "this kind of practice between partners" and demanded that the sweeping surveillance end. The revelation came as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Paris for talks on the Syrian peace process and on a strategy for neutralizing Iran's nuclear program. The episode only adds to the fallout among America's allies, following reports the United States spied on Brazil, Germany, Mexico and other Western partners. Brazil called the spying a breach of national sovereignty, and its president called off her scheduled visit to Washington this week. On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called President Barack Obama to complain after she learned that U.S. intelligence may have been monitoring her mobile phone.
The French condemnation was partly domestic politics, aimed at deflecting criticism of France's own sophisticated surveillance program. But the report creates a point of contention between two major allies — the latest in a series between the United States and its most important global partners. France is pivotal to resolving the security issues with Syria and Iran, just as Brazil and Germany are key to managing relations with China and Russia. Mexico is the front line in America's effort to control the border and the drug trade. Yet the surveillance program is creating obstacles to cooperation by driving a wedge between these leaders and their domestic audiences. This week, a committee in the European Parliament backed a broad set of new privacy rules that could impose huge fines on companies for providing personal data to the government. The United States should recognize these concerns and address the imbalance between security and privacy before its allies start to back away from America's larger foreign policy goals.