The scandal over the National Security Agency’s spying program is no longer just about America snooping on Americans.
The stakes just got bigger — much bigger.
The German news weekly Der Spiegel has reported that the NSA secretly installed covert listening devices even within the offices of the European Union. It said that bugs were planted in EU offices in Washington and New York; EU computer systems were infiltrated; and the NATO headquarters in Brussels was used to access phone and Internet traffic at an EU building nearby.
EU officials and those of individual nations understandably are appalled.
Many in Europe already had become disillusioned with the U.S. over earlier reports about the spying program; Edward Snowden, who leaked information about the programs, has become a hero in parts of Europe as well as Asia.
But at first, the international community acted merely as onlooker. The revelations about U.S. surveillance were disappointing, but did not affect the onlookers directly.
That began to change when Mr. Snowden fled U.S. charges of treason for leaking confirmation of the snooping programs, an action he considered to be responsible whistleblowing. Mr. Snowden took refuge briefly in Hong Kong, then in Russia, pulling the international community into the story.
Now the EU and several member nations feel not only directly involved, but also directly victimized.
“Partners do not spy on each other,” said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, going on to suggest that a free-trade agreement between Europe and America might now be in jeopardy. “We cannot negotiate over a big trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators. The American authorities should eliminate any such doubt swiftly.”
Following the Der Spiegel story, President Obama tried to defuse matters by saying that all countries spy on each other.
That is perhaps true, to one degree or another — but it is not what the Europeans wanted to hear. Nor is such spying always justified or defensible. The United States, for instance, has taken umbrage when it has been revealed that ally Israel has spied on U.S. operations.
For a supposedly superior communicator, President Obama has proved to be surprisingly tone-deaf on this issue. (Perhaps he’s a better speaker than listener.) He continues to defend a reprehensible practice, apparently not understanding just how deeply that practice offends — even frightens — huge numbers of citizens.
And now it’s not just Americans who are outraged, it’s the international community.
Mr. Obama and the NSA should judge the offensiveness of their spying programs not by their own insulated judgments but rather by the breadth and depth of the world’s condemnation.