In 1929, U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed down the State Department's codebreaking department with a famously laconic justification: "Gentlemen do not read each others' mail."
Now, all of Europe is in a great tizzy over revelations that the United States hoovers up emails, Skype calls, and most cell phone traffic in its relentless pursuit of bad guys. But for every terrorist or human trafficker, there are a million blameless citizens (and probably a few gentlemen) who feel a sense of -- if not outrage, then deep unease -- that privacy has seemingly been abolished under President Barack Obama.
Some of the anger is synthetic. When I was Tony Blair's Europe minister, I was given very clear instructions that I should not use my cell phone in Paris because a transcript of what I said would be on a French minister's desk within 15 minutes.
I ignored the advice not because I doubted it was true but because I couldn't think of a more efficient way to convey Her Majesty's Government's line to the French. Yet French President François Hollande has nonetheless condemned the alleged U.S. eavesdropping, protesting that "We cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies." Hollande's trade minister, meanwhile, hinted that the snooping could endanger the EU-U.S. transatlantic trade negotiations due to open in Washington next week. Paris had clearly forgotten the 2005 trial of a dozen Elysée officials who, at the behest of President Francois Mitterrand, listened in on the phone calls of political opponents and journalists in the 1980s.
Traditional French hypocrisy merged with the chance to hit back at Washington over U.S. demands that France ends its so-called "cultural exception" policy, which controls imports of foreign movies and videos and subsidizes domestic production in order to keep the French film cameras turning. The leaks also provided political cover for Hollande, whose economic policy is becoming more austere by the week. Lashing out at the United States -- always France's favorite love-hate target for political abuse -- distracts from the growing leftist anger in France over the president's slow turn toward mainstream economic policy.
But no amount of indignation can disguise the fact that France is hardly Stimson's idea of a gentleman. In addition to its official espionage activities, France is home to world-class eavesdropping companies. One of them, Amesys, which was part of the giant French IT group Bull, sold its Internet analysis software to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2007. (Amesys is still facing charges in Paris from a human rights NGO for allegedly facilitating torture.)
France, however, has not been alone in condemning the espionage allegations. Berlin called in the U.S. ambassador to lodge a complaint and the president of the European Parliament, the German Martin Schulz, demanded to know why the United States treats Europe "how they would treat a hostile power." Yet Germany's own security agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, is notorious for leaking intercepts to journalists in order to expose its targets. For example, BND sources are frequently quoted by Serb propagandists and can be read on Wikipedia as part of their campaign to discredit Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, by dredging up false allegations that he ran a private organ-harvesting operation during the Kosovo War in 1998-99.