NSA Phone-Tapping Redefines Spying


“Spying among friends is never acceptable,” the Chancellor of Germany declared at a press conference last week. Allegations that the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) has been tapping and “monitoring” Chancellor Merkel’s personal cell phone have infuriated America’s close allies. This intrusive maneuver will certainly harm otherwise healthy U.S.-Europe diplomatic relations.

Despite the hype, it’s only wise to take everything with a grain of salt. After all, American intelligence agencies have consistently been making headlines since the passage of the Patriot Act post 9/11. During the Bush administration, the NSA was in the spotlight for wire-tapping international callers; in 2011, intelligence tracked and killed the Al-Awlakis in a drone strike right under our noses; one year ago, Edward Snowden released to the world hundreds of files that exposed the discreet goings-on of American intelligence.

From Snowden we came to know that not only was the U.S. keeping tabs on at least 35 other countries and their political leaders, but also it was gathering data on virtually all of its own citizens via their “private” communication records.

Every now and then, new insight about how intelligence capabilities are being abused seeps into the mainstream media and is met with the expected outrage. Within days the hype dies down until the next big story hits the news.

Slowly but surely we are becoming desensitized to the ubiquitous trespassing on our private lives by these federal government operations. There was a time we wouldn’t have stood for it.

The Cipher Bureau, a sort of NSA prototype, lasted all but a decade until 1929 before Secretary of State Henry Stinson avowed, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

Only 40 years ago, Richard Nixon stood on the brink of impeachment from office for ordering a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. But the obvious abuse of power by the American federal government in present day would never spark the same level of outrage. The reason is that grudgingly, reluctantly, we choose to accept it.

We accept that with modern technological developments, the establishment of the National Surveillance Agency is necessary to maintain an upper hand globally. We accept that the NSA spies on us, on other nations and that its counterparts in other countries spy on us as well.

I’m willing to bet anything that Angela Merkel was not surprised to learn that her communications were bugged. However, as the spotlight fixated on her it was necessary for her to take a decisive stand for her country, to outwardly display resentfulness in response to this personal breach of privacy, to declare that there need to be constraints set in place for American intelligence agencies or else endanger trust between the nations.

But in the end, the chancellor probably doesn’t take it as personally as she or her constituents or the melodramatic journalists make it out to be. Anyway, it is no longer considered “spying” — it is now called “gathering data,” and it is done by intelligence groups of all nations on all other nations, friendly or foe. Who’s to say Germany isn’t doing the same to us? (They probably are.) Therefore, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Germany will not suffer in the long run. The countries will continue to support and rely on each other. The U.S. and its presidents will get away with a simple slap on the wrist and brief reprimand and continue operating as usual, whether the means of obtaining data are deemed “acceptable” is irrelevant.

The role of analyzing, decrypting and hacking foreign or homeland communications is already an indispensable part of the U.S. government. And it is not totally a bad thing: since Sept. 11, at least 39 terrorist plots have supposedly been foiled thanks to our intelligence agencies.

They made the takedown of Osama bin Laden possible, and other corrupt figures. But the means do not justify the end, which is an infringement of our privacy. However, the federal government has slowly built up a tolerance to criticism on how its intelligence operates.

Unfortunately, a controversy with a magnitude much bigger than Merkel’s admonishing or Snowden’s mass exposure of government operations must happen to have a significant impact. But we have learned that mere exposure to the truth is not enough because truth can be manipulated.


Seema Wadhwani is a fourth- year biological sciences major. She can be reached at wadhwans@uci.edu.