The Idiot’s Guide to Snooping on Europe

What NSA spooks need to know about the world’s least sexy spy post, from A to Z.

American spies have been taking it on the chin from European Union officials since it was disclosed in the files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. secret agents were eavesdropping on their conversations in Brussels, New York, and Washington, D.C.

While spying on your most powerful allies just before the start of transatlantic trade talks may not exactly be neighborly behavior, spare a thought for all those poor NSA snoops trying to translate EU gobbledygook into intelligible English or make sense of the Byzantine workings of the world's richest trade club. Out of sympathy for our friends at the NSA, Foreign Policy asked our man in Brussels to gin up an A-Z guide to the European Union for U.S. spooks.

A: Ashton, Catherine

The Right Honourable Baroness Ashton of Upholland was appointed as the EU's first foreign policy chief -- or High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in Brussels jargon -- in 2009, despite the fact that she had virtually no foreign-policy experience and had never been elected to public office. Foreign-policy wonks had low expectations of Ashton when she took up the post -- and few have been disappointed.

B: Berlaymont

The star-shaped Brussels headquarters of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. While renovation works were taking place after asbestos was discovered in the Berlaymont in the 1990s, this reporter found a stack of detailed architects' plans of the building in a garbage container in the car park of the International Press Center. (No comment as to what this reporter was doing rummaging around in the trash.) Fingers were pointed and action was pledged. But a week later, another pile of plans was dumped in the same trash can. This is the kind of high-level security America's secret agents are up against.

C: Council of the European Union

Represents the naked national interests of the Union's 28 member states. Not to be confused with the Council of Europe (Strasbourg-based, non-EU body dealing with town-twinning and telling Russia off) or the European Council (quarterly meetings of EU leaders that have become almost monthly since the financial crisis.)

D: De Gucht, Karel

You can forget the names of most of the 28 European Commissioners, who are like cabinet ministers minus the name recognition, but it's worth remembering this guy. De Gucht -- pronounce it like you're trying to cough up something nasty -- is the Belgian former foreign minister in charge of EU trade talks. And as they like to repeat inside the Brussels beltway, the EU may be a political dwarf but it's an economic giant.

E: Enlargement

If you have a sophisticated spam filter, de-flag this word because it has nothing to do with the junk mail you may be used to. It is simply EU jargon for increasing the number of members it has -- from six when the bloc was founded in 1957 to 28 as of July 1 when Croatia joined. The rapid expansion of the EU in the last decade has resulted in "enlargement fatigue" -- both inside the bloc and in the countries queuing up to join. The Turks are tired of waiting after half a century in the EU's ante-chamber and Croats were so underwhelmed at the prospect of joining that only 20 percent of them bothered to vote in the first elections to the European Parliament in April.

F: France

The most compassionate, most central, and least arrogant European country -- at least according to the French. France used to be known as the "motor" of EU integration, but these days the engine is more VW than Citroen. Led by President François Hollande, a self-confessed "Mr. Normal." For once, a politician is not lying.

G: Greece

Europe's basket case. Think Alabama or Mississippi but with better food and thinner people. But forget the German stereotype of Greeks as lazy scroungers. OECD figures show Greeks work harder than any European nation.

H: Horsemeat

Known as "beef" in Europe. The French and Belgians love eating this stuff. The Brits, however, don't appreciate it turning up unannounced in their lasagna.

I: Intelligence

The EU doesn't have much -- of the spying kind, that is. The EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) -- which aims to warn Ashton of upcoming threats to the EU -- has only 70 people on staff and meager resources. The NSA has around 40,000 employees and an estimated budget of $10 billion.

J: Jose Manuel Barroso

Former Euro-deputy Jean-Louis Bourlanges once described the European Commission president as "a man who knows how to say nothing in five languages" -- which is tame compared to the abuse leveled at him by some current French ministers. After recently describing French free-trade opponents as "reactionaries," he has become public enemy number one in Paris. The former Portuguese premier made jobs and growth the priority of his presidency after taking office in 2004. Unfortunately, the EU has produced neither.

K: Kissinger Question, The

Frustrated by the ever-changing stewardship of the European Union, Henry Kissinger once allegedly asked, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" The former U.S. secretary of state says he doesn't remember saying it but is happy to take credit, anyway. Since the Lisbon Treaty (see under: Treaties) the EU finally has an answer for him, according to one of the rare jokes to surface in Brussels. The number is 1-800-1-EUROPE. When you call, an automated voice informs you: "To speak to the European Council President, press 1. For the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, press 2. For the current rotating head of the Council of Ministers, press 3. To reach the European Commission President, press 4...." (The longer you spend in Brussels the funnier this becomes.)

L: Languages

Your high school Spanish is not going to get you very far listening in on the EU. Although English has now replaced French as the club's "lingua franca," there are still 23 other official languages requiring simultaneous translation -- including Gaelic, which is spoken by less than 3 percent of Irish people.

M: Merkel, Angela

German chancellor affectionately known as "Angie" by diehard fans, and by less flattering nicknames by Southern Europeans living under German-mandated austerity policies. Perfect spy material should she ever decide to leave politics -- born in communist East Germany, speaks fluent Russian and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

N: Neelie Kroes

As European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, this veteran Dutch politician is one of the most powerful officials in Brussels. She is also one of the very few with a sense of humor. In an #AskNeelie Q+A in 2012 one tweep asked what she was wearing. To which the Dutch politician replied: "Would u believe if I say Chanel Number 5 and nothing else?" How's that for transparency?

O: Olli Rehn

The Finnish Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro is another believer in full transparency. He holds regular briefings for select Brussels-based journalists in the sauna of the European Commission's Berlaymont headquarters. This may be because it's the only place that isn't bugged and where there aren't angry mobs protesting at the EU's austerity measures. Plus after five minutes, hacks get too lightheaded to remember their questions.

P: Parliament, The European

The EU's only directly elected body has been gaining powers in inverse proportion to voters since the first poll was held in 1979 -- turnout is now down to U.S. midterm levels of around 40 percent. The EU assembly meets mainly in Brussels but decamps to Strasbourg every month and has several thousand staff marooned in Luxembourg -- hence its "traveling circus" moniker. Headed by pugnacious president Martin Schulz, a vocal critic of U.S. snooping.


Gone are the days when member states wielded vetoes -- apart from when protecting the glory of French cinema, of course. Now, almost all decisions in the Council of the EU are made by qualified majority voting (QMV.) This system divvies up votes roughly according to population size. Or, to paraphrase Orwell: "all EU states are equal but some -- notably Germany -- are more equal than others." 

R: Referendum

When EU treaties are changed, some states have to ask voters to ratify them in referenda. If the answer is "no," the EU's tried and trusted method is to keep asking the people to vote until they come up with the right answer. This worked for Denmark once and Ireland twice.

S: Single Currency

The euro, which is used by 17 of the EU's 28 member states, was devised as a way of keeping down Germans and uniting Europeans. It has failed to do the former and succeeded at the latter: Now, most Europeans in most big countries believe EU integration has weakened their economies.

T: Treaties

The United States has a constitution, which has served it pretty well for 226 years. The EU has treaties, which it changes roughly once a decade. The latest is the Lisbon Treaty, which was supposed to make the EU leaner and simpler to understand. It has done nothing of the sort. For example, the new rulebook was meant to scrap the rotating six-month presidency of the Council in favor of a longer-term president. But when the measure came to be implemented, no state wanted to give up its once-in-every-14-years stint in the spotlight. So, now the Council has both a "president" (Herman Van Rompuy) and a "presidency" (Lithuania since July 1).

U: U.K.

Although America's 51st state -- which is how many Europeans view Britain -- is still  in the EU, it may not be for much longer. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged a referendum on British membership in the Union if he wins the next election; polls now show a slim majority in favor of leaving. A "Brexit" may spark street parties in France, but not in the United States -- which is so chummy with London it has signed a formal "no-spy" deal with it.

V: Van Rompuy, Herman

Back in 2009, Europeans finally answered the Kissinger question and created the post of EU president -- or European Council president, to be exact. Your leading candidates for the post were Tony Blair or a Haiku-writing politician so mousy he had to be coaxed into becoming prime minister of Belgium and only lasted in the job for a year. You go for Blair right? Wrong.

W: Washington, D.C.

The United States has gone from being the European Union's new BFF since Obama came to office to reverting to its traditional role as the over-protective big brother Europeans love to bitch about since the NSA PRISM story broke. When the Guardian headlined an article "How the US is bugging European allies," on Monday, most European readers probably chuckled at the unintentional play on words.

X: X

What you jot down in the surveillance log every time you hear someone say something in Brussels that is actually likely to change anything. So you can safely ignore EU politicians' calls for lower labor costs and higher defense spending and most finger-wagging at rogue regimes.

Y: Youth unemployment

In the EU, almost a quarter of young people are jobless, with the figure rising to over 50 percent in countries like Greece and Spain. The problem has now reached such epic proportions that the EU ... wait for it ... held a summit about it in June. At the meeting, leaders earmarked 6 billion euros to help the Union's 26 million unemployed people find work -- roughly one-tenth of the cash doled out in subsidies to farmers and fishermen every year. 

Z: Zzzz

The likely results of the NSA's Brussels surveillance efforts.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images


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Jimmy Wales is Not an Internet Billionaire

Amy Chozick • New York Times Magazine

The long, strange trip of the Wikipedia founder.

Wales has a complicated time balancing his new life with his old one. That was evident one morning this winter as he bounded into the lobby of the West End building where he rented office space and hurriedly signed himself in at the front desk. Wales, his brown Tumi bag slung over his shoulder, was 45 minutes late, disheveled and a little frantic. He had left the keys to his and Garvey's Marylebone apartment at his place outside Tampa; the nanny, here in London, was stranded with the couple's 2-year-old daughter. "I forgot to drop off the key," he said. Just when Wales thought he might have to run home, his assistant, who is based in Florida, texted that a building manager had let the nanny in. Global child-care crisis averted.

Wales wore a too-tight black turtleneck under a black overcoat with a well-shorn beard, a look that could either read Steve Jobs superhero or Tekserve flasher. Almost any time you see Wales, 46, he looks like a well-groomed version of a person who has been slumped over a computer drinking Yoo-hoo for hours. After he composed himself, he explained that his office was too embarrassingly unkempt for public consumption. ("It's a room with a couch, it's a huge mess.") So he joined me on a cracked sofa in a common lounge area downstairs. With its ratty Oriental carpets and mismatched folding chairs, the space exuded a bohemian chic look that Wales, a savvy purveyor of his own image, seemed to delight in showing off. The building, a condemned former BBC space, had been slated for demolition. Wales would soon be moving. "I'm not the Google guys," he said.


How Glenn Greenwald Became Glenn Greenwald

Jessica Testa • BuzzFeed

Teenage politician, a corporate lawyer, and a diehard civil libertarian: Glenn Greenwald before the NSA scandal.

Greenwald has been a careful observer of politics since his childhood in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, where he watched his grandfather serve as a city councilman. In high school, he joined the debate team, and during his senior year, at 17, he decided to run for city council.

"In high school I was always a little ... I forged my own path," he said.

But Greenwald learned - after two unsuccessful campaigns before the age of 25 - he wasn't cut out for politics.

"My grandfather would try to represent poor homeowners against the powers that be in the city. He taught me that whatever skills you have should be devoted toward undermining the people who are the strongest and most powerful," Greenwald said. "In politics, you need a desire and ability to please large numbers of people. That's definitely not in my interests and not what I do well."

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Inside Story of Russia's Fight to Keep the U.N. Corrupt

Colum Lynch • Foreign Policy

How Russia consistently undermines the U.N. in order to keep a multi-billion dollar monopoly on the sales of helicopters and airplanes.

Russia's zeal for turning back reform has been felt most powerfully in the U.N.'s leasing of aircraft -- a $1 billion a year market -- that provide transport for the world's second-largest expeditionary force. An examination of U.N. procurement practices in the air-transport sector -- drawing on dozens of interviews with U.N.-based officials and diplomats, as well as a review of internal U.N. communications and audits -- suggests that Russia has enjoyed unfair advantages, including contracts that all but demand that the United Nations lease Russia's Soviet-era aircraft.

The dispute provides a textbook example of the difficulties of implementing basic financial reforms at the United Nations when major powers have conflicting commercial interests in the outcome. As such, the secretary general and key countries have been unwilling to openly confront Russia because its cooperation is required on a wide range of critical issues at the United Nations.


A Deadly Triangle

William Dalrymple • The Brookings Institute

On the India-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan.

The phone call was from a girlfriend of Mitali's who worked for Air India at Kabul airport. Breathless, she said she had just heard that two of the Indian guest houses, the Park and the Hamid, were under attack by militants. As the only woman on her team, Mitali had been staying in separate lodgings about two miles away from the rest of her colleagues, who were all in the Hamid. Within seconds, Mitali was pulling on her clothes, along with the hijab she was required to wear, and running, alone and unarmed, through the empty morning streets of Kabul toward the Hamid.

"I just thought they might need my help," she told me recently in New Delhi.

As she dashed past the Indian Embassy, Mitali was recognized by one of the guards from diplomatic security who shouted to her to stop. The area around the guest houses was mayhem, he told her. She should not go on alone. She must return immediately to her lodgings and stay there.

"I don't require your permission to rescue my colleagues," Mitali shouted back, and kept on running.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Los Infiltradores

Michael May • The American Prospect

On the three undocumented activists who intentionally got arrested to help other detained immigrants.

In July 2012, Abdollahi, Saavedra, Martinez, and two other NIYA activists piled in a car and headed to Florida. They planned to infiltrate the Broward Transitional Center, a GEO detention facility near Fort Lauderdale that houses only low-priority cases. Broward appeared to embody the contradictory nature of immigration policy. In 2009, ICE had held up the facility as a model of a kinder, gentler immigration system. The argument went that, since immigration violations are not usually a jailable offense, then detention centers shouldn't feel like jail-they should feel like a motel, except you can't leave. In Broward, detainees have flat-screen TVs in their rooms and are free to roam the facility for most of the day. But why were they locked up in the first place? According to lawyers who work in Broward, most of the inmates at Broward shouldn't be detained if ICE were following the guidelines laid out by Obama and Morton.

Broward is segregated by gender, so the plan was for Martinez to get herself detained and organize among the women at Broward, while Saavedra would be arrested and organize the men. Abdollahi would lead the campaign from outside Broward, publicizing the plights of the unjustly detained immigrants in the center.

There was an immediate hitch: It turned out that it wasn't so easy to get arrested.

David McNew/Getty Images

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