The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Opinion

November 4, 2013

NSA's intelligence gathering is not very smart

It’s hardly a secret that nations gather intelligence on each other. That’s true of friends and adversaries. No matter how close nations are, they have competing interests. Even intelligence gathered among friends is useful in developing strategies in key areas.

But intelligence gathering takes various forms. It can involve combing through official testimony, picking up gossip at cocktail parties and, it seems, listening to the cellphone conversations of other world leaders.

European nations are in an uproar over reports that the U.S. National Security Agency monitored the cellphone conversations of various leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It seems that Merkel’s cellphone was tapped for years, until the activity was halted earlier this year.

The embarrassing revelations are among the leaks from Edward Snowden, a former employee of an NSA contractor now living in Russia. Information that Snowden obtained from the U.S. government has been seeping out, revealing a vast intelligence gathering system by the NSA that gobbles up data from cellphones, email accounts and other sources.

Despite the NSA’s repeated assurances of privacy, Americans simply do not know how extensive its data mining efforts are. Every time we turn around, we learn its reach is far broader than was let on previously.

Some NSA defenders argue that spying among countries is to be expected. But what would be their reaction if a European ally was caught tapping the phones of President Obama and congressional leaders?

Espionage is a reality, but a risk/benefit assessment of monitoring the cellphone of Germany’s chancellor would suggest that it’s something to avoid. After all, we doubt that Merkel is part of a terrorist cell.

Does the protection of America’s security demand that her conversations be monitored? Anyone who answers “yes” should consider what’s happening now. As a result, European nations are debating a suspension of intelligence agreements with the United States. They worry that the NSA is seeking economic data to give America a trade advantage, using claims of anti-terror concerns as a cover.

So tapping phones may backfire badly on the United States. In terms of intelligence gathering, that can’t be very smart.

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