from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Against Spying on Foreign Leaders

October 25, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Reading the news stories about alleged U.S. spying on Angela Merkel’s cell phone, an old memory came to mind.

In the Reagan second term I was Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, or Latin America. One day my CIA counterpart told me an opportunity had been presented to place a bug in the office of a Latin American president. Would I authorize it? That was above my pay grade, I told my colleague, and I needed to ask my boss, Secretary of State George Shultz.

I did ask Shultz and he rejected the idea. The country in question was not Cuba, an enemy state allied with the USSR. It was a friendly state, with an elected president, and Shultz thought there was no excuse for spying on that president in this way. It offended him, it was unnecessary, it was a bad precedent, it was no way to treat friends.

I am confident that if the technology we have today had been available then and he’d been asked whether we should spy on the cell phones of allied leaders, he’d have said no. He was right back in the 1980s, and the same rules ought to apply-- so I very much hope these allegations about Merkel are wrong. It is one thing to pick up a random leader phone call because we have some intelligence operations in a capital city, but quite another to target the cell phone of an allied, democratically elected, friendly leader. In fact, if we picked up any Merkel calls as part of broader operations we should have warned her that her conversations were unsafe, not honed in and picked up more.

Most of the European objections to alleged NSA activities strike me as ridiculous. They spy, we spy, and everyone knows it. Everyone knows or should know that a cell phone is a radio, and every call can be picked up with equipment available at Radio Shack. National leaders should be careful and their own spy agencies should protect them.

But targeting allied leaders like Merkel is a huge mistake-- and again, I don’t know if we did it or not and hope we did not. If we did, who knew about it? Was the president getting this intel, these records of leaders calls and texts? Because if he was --and who else but the President, Vice President, and a tiny selection of top officials would see such material?-- the President has made a great error of judgment in permitting this activity. He owes Merkel an apology. And he owes the American people one as well.

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