National Security

Does Listening to Angela Merkel's Phone Calls Make America Safer?

Why mutually assured espionage doesn't work.

When I was U.S. ambassador to Romania in the late 1990s and early 2000s, my embassy colleagues and I assumed (or maybe flattered ourselves) that we were bugged by foreign spy agencies. We gathered that what we said behind closed doors -- that we wanted Romania well prepared to join NATO and the EU, Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Bucharest to clean up its broken banks -- would be shocking: Because we were saying the same things in private which we said repeatedly in public. 

That joke came to mind last week as I talked with National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander when he met with the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs. I asked him to explain the national security rationale for the NSA tapping the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of executives of the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. His answer was interesting.

"If you want to know the leadership intentions" of democratic governments, he said, tapping their phones is one way to do it. 

General Alexander didn't say such spying is needed to stop terrorism or discover existential attacks on our homeland. Essentially, he said that U.S. diplomats -- who are major "customers" of our intelligence agencies -- like getting an inside peek at the private conversations of our allies. They think it helps them do better at least a part of their jobs (reporting on perspectives of foreign governments to the State Department, CIA, and other federal agencies).

It probably does. But how much it helps protect our country is the bigger question, given the costs it extracts in lost trust. I'm sure I could negotiate better deals with my business partners or my Senate colleagues if I regularly read their private emails and listened on their private phone calls. It's human nature to want to know more.

But, on balance, would I work with them more effectively over the long run if they knew -- or suspected -- I was tapping their phones?

The answer is not as obvious as it may seem.

If General Alexander is right that "everybody spies on everybody" in international diplomacy, as he said in Baltimore, then it's conceivable that all the spying increases trust among allies by actually increasing transparency. War is often the result of miscalculation of other countries' intentions, so it's theoretically possible that ubiquitous espionage, on allies as well as adversaries, has the potential to reduce miscalculation as well as paranoia. It may even help advance the interests of the victims of spying by strengthening the credibility of their public statements -- as my public preaching on the benefits of good ethnic relations in Romania might have gained credibility had their spies heard me say the same thing in "secret meetings" in the U.S. embassy.

That's a comforting theory. But it assumes perfect spy craft by all nations - that everyone hears everyone else's conversations, understands their languages well, and has the cultural and analytical skills to accurately interpret what they are hearing. Not likely.

The reality is that some countries will be better eavesdroppers than others -- probably the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and Israel, just to guess -- which would give them a competitive advantage over less-skilled countries. But even the NSA and other world-class intelligence agencies capture only fragments of information from other governments -- just dots which need to be connected, in context, to be useful. So spying probably doesn't increase trust materially.

And the downsides of the "spy vs. spy" mentality need to be counted too. Targeted leaders must try to minimize detection of conversations they want to keep private. A prime minister may not consult her foreign minister in a crisis just because she's not confident her cell phone is secure. Our White House will limit its own access to publicly available information on Twitter, as was recently reported.

And then there's the simple waste of time and money spent finding out -- and reporting -- what the president of France had for breakfast.  None of that is good for the spying or spied-on country. 

Of course the bigger issue is the value of trust among and within democratic societies. Trust between citizens and their governments is the coin of the democratic realm. By definition, dictatorships don't trust their people. And they don't trust other dictatorships -- or anybody else. But democracies survive when people trust their elected officials. When they don't, governments fall. And democracies trust each other. That is one big reason why democracies rarely invade other democracies. 

Spying on leaders of other states is a legacy of the pre-democratic world, the centuries of kings and empires. Everybody was spying on everyone else because nobody trusted anyone else. And war was the repeated result.

But the post-World War II expansion of democracy -- from Germany to Japan, from India to Brazil -- has brought more peace than any era in recorded history. Its basis has been trust -- that France understands that Germany will not attack, that Mexico knows the United States will not invade, that Indonesia gets that the Philippines does not lust after its islands. They trust each other, not because they are reading each other's mail (which they may well be), but because they are democracies -- their people trust their leaders, their leaders trust their people, and the countries trust each other. Obviously, there are gradations of trust, as there are of democracy. The United States trusts Canada and South Korea more than it trusts Turkey and Bolivia.  But, over time, the more democratic countries are, the more predictable and less threatening they are to their neighbors and to America -- and thus more trustworthy.

But too many diplomats, military officials, and intelligence professionals in the United States and other democracies, raised in a Cold War world -- when we really couldn't trust the Soviet dictatorship -- have not adjusted to the 21st-century reality. Yes, American national security is threatened by al Qaeda, China, Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and a variety of other dictatorships and non-state actors.

They cannot be trusted. They are dangers to the United States and its allies. And yes, reading their emails and tapping their phones is the much lesser evil than going to war with them.

But while we may not agree with every economic or social policy in Japan or Italy, they are not existential threats to America. Listening to the private conversations of their leaders is mildly interesting, but it is not mission critical to protect our homeland. Silvio Berlusconi may have a variety of bad habits, but threatening the security of the United States is not among them. And Edward Snowden, a bright, motivated, and disloyal employee of the first rank, has certainly confirmed the argument made by the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his brilliant 1998 book, Secrecy: human knowledge is extraordinarily hard to keep secret -- and the U.S. government is only fooling itself, not its enemies or its allies, when it tries to.

Perhaps because American democracy is 237 years old and few living Americans have had their phones tapped for political purposes, it's hard for us to understand the revulsion many Europeans, Latin Americans, and others felt when they learned that the NSA was listening to the calls of the leaders of Germany and Brazil. But it should be no surprise to us that Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff -- who grew up under dictatorships, one of the left and one of the right -- are not amused.

"Everybody spies on everybody" is a comforting slogan for those who haven't been spied on by their own governments. But those who have been, including the democratically elected leaders of the biggest nations in Europe and Latin America, both of whom are friends of the United States, take it a lot more seriously. We should too. 

As General Alexander said in Baltimore last week, "These partnerships have greater value than some of the [intelligence] collection." He's right too.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

In Pakistan, Slow and Steady Just Might Win the Race

Yes, terrorism is a problem. But Pakistan is making remarkable headway in its transition to democracy.

Amid the suicide attacks, the enforced disappearances, and the sectarian violence, there is another story unfolding in Pakistan -- one based on a slow but steady transition to democracy that doesn't entail the violent political upheavals rocking the Arab Spring countries like Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Yet Pakistan's "long march" to democracy may well hold important lessons for countries struggling to make a similar shift from a deep-rooted history of dictatorship to democracy. While it's true that terrorism continues to threaten the progress Pakistan has made toward institutionalizing democratic practices, cooperation on the political front dominates relations between the main political parties. The result is an unprecedented era of political reconciliation and democratic consolidation for the first time in decades.

Pakistan has struggled to establish a fully functioning democracy since its inception in 1947, with successive military dictatorships intervening to quash prodemocracy forces and weaken democratic institutions. 34 of Pakistan's 66 years have been under military rule. In May 2006, however, the country's two biggest political parties and long-time bitter rivals united forces for the first time against military dictatorship. The late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, both in exile at the time, signed the Charter of Democracy. The Charter bound their two parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to "play by the rules" and implement key reforms to strengthen democratic practices regardless of which party won the next election. The agreement marked a decisive turning point, ushering in a new spirit of cooperation based on the mutual recognition that political unity was the only way to end dictatorship and restore democracy.

The Charter was ignored by western diplomats in Islamabad and many western governments, especially the United States, which continued to funnel billions of dollars to General Pervez Musharraf's military regime. They failed to spot the crucial significance of the extraordinary agreement between Pakistan's most important political parties, which established a peaceful mechanism for establishing a sustainable transition to a stable government. The Charter appears even more remarkable when viewed against the current gridlock between congressional Republicans and Democrats in the United States. In Pakistan, at least, the Charter showed that two competitive parties were willing to put the public interest ahead of their own.

One western diplomat assured me that the Charter "wasn't worth the paper it was written on." But both the PPP and the PML-N have remained committed to the Charter's democratic principles despite major setbacks, such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto just before the scheduled 2008 election. Indeed, by voting to oust President Musharraf soon after the parliamentary elections, the newly elected provincial assemblies, dominated by the PPP and PML-N, unleashed a "democratic revolution" and reclaimed their legislative authority without a drop of bloodshed.

The September 2008 election of the PPP's Asif Ali Zardari as president offered further evidence that the PML-N was prepared to accept the PPP parliamentary election victory despite their growing political differences and Sharif's decision to leave the new coalition government just months after it was formed. In a country where the intelligence agencies routinely manipulate political parties with bribes, threats, and coups d'états, Zardari's election was a clear sign of Sharif's commitment to turn a historic corner and embrace the democratic process, even if it meant a five-year stint in opposition after eight years in exile.

In 2009, with a democratically elected parliament and president in office, lawmakers established a special parliamentary committee, consisting of representatives of all the parties in the parliament, to review the constitutional distortions imposed by the country's four dictators and to propose reforms based on the Charter of Democracy. The year-long laborious effort yielded a political consensus that restored the constitution to the principles of parliamentary democracy on which the country was founded.

The Eighteenth Amendment, passed in April 2010, enabled President Zardari to restore to the prime minister and parliament the constitutional authority that Musharraf had seized as president, enabling him to maintain control of the elected government and turn the country from a parliamentary republic into a semi-presidential state. The Eighteenth Amendment returned the presidency to a largely ceremonial role while restoring the prime minister and parliament's authority to appoint heads of the armed forces, dissolve parliament, and dismiss an elected government. The amendment also stifles any future undemocratic attempt to overthrow an elected government by making it an act of treason. It also includes a bipartisan process for appointing the chief election commissioner, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the head of the anti-corruption authority, and so on. In a country where, for half its history, parliament was forcefully held subservient to the military, the unanimous vote by political parties in support of the Eighteenth Amendment was an extraordinary achievement.

More recent actions appear to confirm the sustainability of the continuing transition to democracy. The 2013 parliamentary elections saw an elected party complete its five-year mandate for the first time and not only pass power peacefully to another party, but also announce its intention to act as a "constructive" opposition. Prime Minister Sharif's appointment of a Baloch party leader as chief minister of the province of Balochistan, despite internal pressure to appoint someone from his own party, suggests that Sharif recognizes the need for political compromise and cooperation.

The transition hasn't been completely smooth. Bumps in the road, like the friction between the government and a hyper-active chief justice, for example, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. The court's interference in the schedule of the recent presidential elections also resulted in the resignation of a widely respected chief election commissioner just months after his appointment, as well as a boycott of that election by the PPP and its key party allies. This tug-of-war can, perhaps, be seen in a somewhat positive light as institutions struggle to find their legitimate space in the new democratic order rather than seek the military solutions of the past. The fact the military didn't intervene to resolve any of these stand-offs is significant in a country where, historically, the military, supported by many in the judiciary, has used such clashes to seize power.

The recent announcement by the chief of the army that he will step down when his term expires next month is another significant, if small, sign that the balance of civil-military relations is starting to shift. Under General Kayani's rule, the army made few or no attempts to interfere in many spheres under control of the civilians, like the economy and the constitution. But on foreign and defense policy, while space for civilians has increased slightly, the army still wields a veto. Kayani, generally seen as a democrat, has publicly advised his successor to continue supporting the democratic process. This will depend, in part, on who takes his place and the capacity of the civilian government to maintain good relations with the military while continuing to press for positive change.

The country still faces daunting challenges from terrorism, sectarianism, ethnic unrest, regional disputes, and poverty. Power struggles between the central government and the provinces threaten decentralization. There are troubling signs that Prime Minister Sharif's commitment to parliamentary supremacy may be more rhetoric than reality now that he's in office. He rarely appears at sessions of parliament, and his ministers have yet to present any major pieces of legislation for debate. Perhaps most troubling is the government's lack of a coherent policy on terrorism which continues to take innocent lives throughout the country.

Nonetheless, Pakistan is now better equipped than ever to confront the future armed with a stronger democratic framework that provides a means of resolving political differences. The ongoing peaceful transition to democracy is a stark contrast to the violent upheavals devastating other countries struggling to throw off dictatorships. The unity the PPP and PML-N demonstrated in the Charter of Democracy was profoundly significant and set a democratic tone which showed that strong political parties and political leadership are vital for a peaceful, stable, and sustainable transition from dictatorship to democracy.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images