Zakaria: We shouldn't be spying on ally leaders
October 28th, 2013
11:22 AM ET

Zakaria: We shouldn't be spying on ally leaders

CNN speaks with Fareed about claims the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls, whether such an approach is justified and how the Obama administration has handled the controversy. This is an edited version of the transcript.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that the U.S. relationship with European nations has been severely shaken. Do you think these reports that continue to come out over U.S. eavesdropping on leaders are really hurting or threatening a relationship with some of our most basic and key allies?

I think it is. Look, some of this is what people are calling the Claude Rains routine – I'm shocked to discover there's gambling going on. And spying is the second oldest profession in the world. But two things have changed. One is just the explosion of technology, big data, the ability to find all this stuff and the United States’ incredible cutting edge on that. And the second was 9/11, which in a sense freed all the constraints that we have typically felt about collecting this kind of information, particularly from spies, because we felt like we need to know everything about everything. Those two forces have, frankly, made us sloppy about this.

We should not be, in my opinion, spying on our closest allies’ heads of government. It's one thing to try to find al Qaeda sleeper cells in Hamburg, but you don't need to tap Angela Merkel's cell phone to figure that out.

We hear from the administration and members of Congress that everyone spies on everyone. But does it feel we're in a different place, we're kind of in an uncharted territory here with us?

It does precisely because of the technologies that make it possible for to you listen to anyone, anywhere at any time, and so you have to come up with some new rules of the road. The United States is often caught in this kind of hypocritical position where we're trying to enforce rules for everybody else and we say we can't play by those rules. You know, we have nuclear weapons, but we don't want other people to have nuclear weapons. This is a similar thing. The hypocrisy can only happen for so long. You have to, in some way, show that you are being governed by some set of rules.

More from CNN: U.S. needs to get spying under control

So, I think the administration is doing the right thing – review the policy, get into conversations with the Europeans and come up with some rules of the road. Of course, they realize everyone spies. They spy on us. But I think what they're trying to say is look, even within that, you know, let's have some kind of rules of war, if you will.

Peter King, the congressman from New York, said something pretty interesting on "Meet the Press" this weekend. He said the administration needs to stop apologizing for the NSA's tactics. You said you think the administration is doing the right thing in reviewing the process. How are they handling the fallout, do you think?

Not very well. They're being surprisingly inarticulate about it. They should explain the motivation behind this has been things like terrorism, trying to figure out what's going on. One of the reasons they are is they don't want to get into specifics…and from what I've heard the stuff about Merkel's cell phone is a little more complicated and the reports are not accurate. Whatever, they've got to come up with a way to stand before the world and say look, this is what we do in general terms. This is why we do it.

Even if they're reviewing the policy, they need to have some general explanation that makes sense of it. If I were them, I would list 20 terrorist attacks that were thwarted as a result of this.

Now, France and Germany, they are sending over some senior intelligence officials to Washington this week to try to have a no spy accord or work on something like that. Is that going to be enough to try to settle the anger or calm the outrage that's felt around the world on this?

I think it's a good question. At a governmental level, I think we will be able to settle the anger. But clearly what is happening here is that European politicians are responding to a public that has become quite distrustful of the United States, views it as a kind of 800-pound gorilla that's out of control. And we need to think about that.

American legitimacy, our influence around the world, depends in large part on the idea that we are sort of rule based, we observe some of the kind of rules we want other people to observe. And that's why I say we've got to think about the rewards here of spying on Merkel – you're not learning that much, frankly, that you didn't know.

Not so surprising.

Precisely. The truth of the matter is at the level of high policy, particularly with democracies, most of the time you have a fairly good sense of what the leader is trying to do. If you're trying to find terrorists, that's fine. But again I'm not sure how tapping Merkel's phone gets you there.

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soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    For one time, I agree with Fareed Zakaria. Like he said, this activity is wrong. Maybe this could break the blind obedience in which these spineless Europen leaders carry out our orders but unfortunately, that appears to be quite unlikely. I'm afraid it will be business as usual in the end!

    October 28, 2013 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • Michael Allen

      The fact that Rock Obama is apologizing for the NSA actions while Right Wing Congressmen are defending them. Just goes to remind us that ultra right wing politics has divided our nation and caused the rest of the world to mis trust and fear our dangerous policies. Fareed is correct , we have enough enemies without alienating our friends.

      October 28, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      When Zakaria plays a moralists, you know the admin has fallen low. And the articulate Obama is out of words to explain spying on Merkel and other EU's allies. If he wasn't black, EU's socialists would be lynching him now.

      October 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  2. Allan Kinsman

    All you have is your reputation. Between our mismanagement of the dollar and our lack of integrity the United States will fnd itself in a situation it will not manuver out of. It appears Washington is missing some critical avenues of thinking. Certainly it appears there is no transparency in Washington. This brings about many questions. It astounds me that the American people tolerate such behavior. No one would or could run their home this way. They wld be in jail.

    October 28, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
  3. sonny chapman

    Karma is hell. Jesus hated hypocrisy, Matthew 23,1-36. That's 36 verses dedicated to decrying hypocrisy !!

    October 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  4. Vene

    Go to swarmrifle.com/the-digital-age.html you'll see the future.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  5. MichaelNC

    He is so full of it. Get real. Don't spy on our allies. Oh, because they have such great track records? Almost every major power spies on us. Even the ones we share intelligence with. Of course we are going to spy on them. How do you think we know they are still our allies? Faith, hope, trust? Faith, hope, and trust are not reasonable or viable strategies..... grow up.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • 4sanity

      You have more to fear from your card-carrying NRA redneck neighbor than Franz eating bratwurst in Berlin or Francois sipping a glass of bordeaux 3000 miles away.

      So, you if you wanted to be safer from "terror" and violence, then you should be all in favor of warrantless "spying" on US citizens.

      October 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  6. TiredOfPaying

    'List 20 terrorist attacks that were twarted' – $52 Billion/year budget for NSA, all to 'prevent' terror attacks that they can't even list? Meanwhile your chances of winning the Lottery are greater than dying to terrorists. 40,000+ people per year die in auto accidents int he US, which could be prevented with Driverless Cars, but we've got to strip search Grandma at the airport instead. End this failed war on terrorism, return America's freedoms and use the money to finance better things than the NSA reading our allies's emails.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  7. sonny chapman

    I'm still "Shocked" by how much spying goes on between two supposed "close allies", Israel & America.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  8. Chuk

    Hypocrisy is well engrained in the US. Like its ally Israel. If the US had bothered to ask Israel to give up its nuclear weapons before telling everyone how dangerous it is for Iran to have a single weapon, we'd be further along in denuclearizing the area. But US lacks the courage to confront Israel.
    The problem with this type of behavior is that after a while people stop believing you.
    As long as this "ally" Israel keeps its stash of weapons, it has no right to keep pushing for the world to deny Iran of the same right. In fact, Israel should do its own heavy-lifting: If it can't wait to get into a war with ran, go for it! Not urge others to do its dirty work and sit back to watch the ensuing fireworks.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  9. Allan Kinsman

    And we end up all spying on every individual and government? Our reputation means what people can expect. Perhas if we spent more time being transparent then stood behind this with action we would need no reason to spy. Perhaps attempting to find terrorists is somewhat different than listening to the private phone calls of allies. We have taken the war on terrorism to the same level we have taken the war on drugs. Poorly constructed reason to create expensive, ineffective and misguided systems which operate without oversight and any reasonable financial restraint. We have created an enviornment which we are selling the individual American down the drain by the inappropriate devaluation of the American dollar through throwing money not reason at our problems.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  10. saywhat

    Well said@Chuk.
    Also read Justin Raimondo's article "NSA & Israel partners in crime'.US takes blame for Israeli snooping.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  11. curiousdwk

    Say "YES" to Transparancy and "NO" to US Exceptionalism. (Exceptionalism = the laws are made to be followed EXCEPT by the US which holds itself to be above any and all laws.)

    October 28, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  12. dbtunr

    Considering that Germany started 2 World Wars that killed tens of million of people, we should probably keep spying on them. And the fact that we paid to rebuild Germany after the last War.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  13. JD

    Freedom, Justice, and most of all Liberty.
    Something isn't right in the USA if people who stand up for these, believing in it and risking everything for them are treated as criminals and traitors. Snowden should be a hero of the US, or rather, become the next President to clean up the mess at home.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  14. saywhat

    double standards, hypocrisy and bigotry are factors which have messed up our foreign policy. That this paradigm has hurt US interests and hurt badly is not a moot point.Look where we stand today while emerging power centers are taking hold geo politically.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  15. saywhat

    On Iran. After Adelson, the billionaire who lost a lot of money trying to unseat pr.Obama in 2010 & works tirelessly for Israel like Koch bros, ordained that "US should nuke Iran", Dick Cheney has chimed in too. "War with Iran would probably become inevitable".

    October 28, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  16. saywhat

    "The biggest barrier to peace is unlimited funds provided to IPAC" Jack Straw ex-British F.secy.
    undoubtedly its the likes of AIPAC,ADL,FDD, Heritage foundation etc who shaope and guide US policies. Sad.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  17. saywhat

    Thats AIPAC. Pardon the typo.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  18. Allan Kinsman

    I agree. Mr. Snowden has lost his life to expose the truth. When we have lies as the law then our troubles have just begun. How should we define civilization?. We are no longer leading the world in this definition.

    October 28, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • sly

      Hmmm ... I guess no civilized people have ever spied on each other.

      Yes, the NSA invented spying last year. Before that, no country ever spied.

      Besides, who cares about terrorist attacks, right? I mean, 9/11 was just a hoax, right? And obviously, the NSA must be lying about stopping potential terrorist attacks right? Everyone in government lies right? But no civilians lie ever. In fact, these conspiracies are so wide that they even pretend that Americans elect their government. Ho, what a lie – everyone knows that everyone in Washington is a fake, an android, and no American has ever voted. Certainly no Americans have ever voted for anyone currently in Congress, since 'they' are to blame for all of 'our' problems. In fact, no Congressmen or Presidents have ever been elected – just another lie, because, as all Americans state – all Congressment and all Presidents were all failures who we hate. It's all THEIR fault! We're perfect.

      October 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  19. Wolfgar123

    I really don't understand why everyone is so shocked. Every nation spies on every nation, wether they are friendly towards one another or not. Germany and the rest of Europe are only making a fuss about this because it looks good to their citizens to do so. They spy on us all the time, the difference is in the technical capabilities. We happen to have the ability to do a more thorough job. Just because you are on friendly terms now doesn't mean you will always be friends. Get Over It.

    October 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  20. Curious George

    No one likes being spied upon leaders included. Ideally, complete privacy should be the goal in every communication. Complete privacy being the state that only the sender and receiver of a communication know that it even existed in the first place.

    October 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  21. Allan Kinsman

    Concerning surprise I am not. This is being transparent. The question is, is this the best direction for us to head? I am a Vietnam vet there is nothing that surprises me about what a government can do. This all seems all along the same paradigm. The question are we better off? At the current speed we are all running now to the edge as quickly as we can under the quise of security?

    October 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  22. John

    We need to find enemy intelligence networks operating in NATO countries. This is our utmost responsiblity as a NATO leader. We know that at least Chinese and Koreans secret intelligence networks has cover operations against western interests in NATO countries.

    October 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  23. Person of Interest

    If the US wasn't basically protecting the Germans they would definitely be spying on us. Of course they don't need to steal information regarding the F-15E or the F-22. They have them, located on a US AFB in Germany. Because of this they get to spend little money on Defense, buy the US's old toys (that are still better than their closests enemies), and never worry about someone invading them.

    But trust me, if Germany had as many "concerned citizens" as the US does you would find out about their espionage. I bet our ambassador's phones are tapped and emails too. Information is the name of the game. To think otherwise is completely naive.

    October 28, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  24. Allan Kinsman

    We have for too long manufactured in Washington a foreign policy of special interests. Laws formed in the direction of supporting an artifical process of profit. I have nothing against profit but when policies send jobs overseas, send military assets unto foreign soil to protect an non-transparent foreign policy to access foreign resources to protect access to energy and put into place corrupt investment policies that nearly bankrupt the world through nothing more than mass fraud. Don't we begin to start asking questions? Is there anyone in Washington?

    October 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  25. sly

    There was once a movie about a spy named James Bond, so I'm not real surprised that spying occurs in the world.

    Sounds like others are quite surprised – I guess they missed the movie.

    I also seem to recall this event on 9/11, and although we really don't know who was responsible, I do recall the American people demanded action to protect civilians from terror. Gosh, we even invaded Iceland, or some other country, if I recall, to capture the alleged culprit named Bin Laden. (Wrong country though – apparently our spy network didn't work then).

    But gosh – y'all can ask that there be no more spying. Sounds reasonable. I've been asking that there be no more auto deaths in the world for years. Hasn't quite happened yet.

    October 28, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Kris

      Completely agree, but I think it was Greenland, not Iceland. 😉

      Folks can go to the International Spy Museum in Washington DC to see an interesting history of all of the spying that goes on between countries. There's a lot of it going on right now as we debate this issue, and it's being done by every country that has the means to do so. I also hope for a day when spying is not necessary, but the reality is that it'll always be part of our reality.

      October 28, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  26. Doctor Esquire

    It's not like the Germans have been trouble in the past.

    October 28, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  27. Terry

    obama has deliberately treated our White allies badly while continuing to give billions of America's money to America hating muslim countries.

    October 28, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • sly

      Ho ho ho – right, it's all part of a huge conspiracy launched from Mars.

      Thank God 85% of Americans support our President in this really sublte effort to overthrow the US.

      In fact, just a couple of weeks ago President Obama spoke for 21 straight hours in the House to try to overthrow America.

      October 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  28. saywhat

    sorry@Terry.you are sorely misinformed. With the exception of Egypt whose military we pay a billion dollar a year to protect Israeli interests, we pay no other muslim country billions.

    October 28, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  29. saywhat

    On the contrary Arabs keep our economy afloat with their multi-billion dollar purchases of arms from us.
    Aid often announced for pakistan mostly remains just that, an announcement despite their fighting a war for us.

    October 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  30. Inciteful

    I agree! Stop the hypocrisy! The U.S. monitors everything it can to protect the interests of its citizens. For those countries that don't like it....go pound sand! If those countries were capable, they'd be doing the same.

    October 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
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