Analyst: Eavesdropping row will blow over soon
October 24th, 2013
04:19 PM ET

Analyst: Eavesdropping row will blow over soon

CNN speaks with Christian Whiton, former senior advisor at the U.S. State Department and author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War, about the allegations that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. This is an edited version of the transcript.

I guess everyone spies, but it used to be done in secret. So is the only surprise just how far up the U.S. surveillance program actually goes?

Well, it shouldn’t be that surprising, especially if they are putting wireless signals out there. Because that is the allegation – that it was Angela Merkel’s cell phone. So of course it isn’t just the United States, but also probably the Chinese, the Russians, others, who sweep up electronic intelligence. The point is that you are not really supposed to get caught. And if you do get caught, and it is raised to a senior level, then it’s natural that they are going to protest, which of course is what Germany is doing. It’s what the United States would do if we found out that someone was listening to President Obama’s cell phone.

So is this really a crisis of trust between allies, or is this being done because now that it’s out in public, Germany, France, Mexico, Brazil – they have to say something, they have to protest for domestic consumption. It’s kind of done with a bit of a wink and a nod?

I think especially with Germany and France, of course, they are very familiar with U.S. signals intelligence, which is the technical term for eavesdropping…We use a lot of signals intelligence, we share it with our allies. And they spy on us too. France is one of the most aggressive collectors of intelligence. So what you are seeing is a bit of kabuki theater that will probably blow over before too long.

Is it made a little bit worse because Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, stood on stage with President Barack Obama just a few months ago when this all first blew up, saying that the crisis had been solved, this issue was being put to bed. And now it has come out the claim that the U.S. is actually tapping into her phone.

I do think there is a cumulative effect of sloppiness here because of course this comes not far on the heels of the broader intelligence scandal of WikiLeaks. And so when people cooperate with the United States on intelligence, or sort of look the other way presuming we might be collecting information but not knowing exactly how far it goes, that’s one thing. But when it becomes aired in public, and when 200,000 cables are posted by WikiLeaks – confidential information, confidential conversations – all of this has I think undermined our allies confidence in our ability to keep secrets.

The fact that a young private in the case of WikiLeaks was able to access that much classified information means there is a decline in confidence. I just don’t think it is permanent because all these countries realize the importance of listening to bad actors’ conversations. They are probably just a little upset that we have been listening to so many allies’ conversations.

A lot of this kind of information seems to be coming from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Is there anything the United States can do, or are they just going to have to wait until there is nothing left to leak?

The U.S. can’t really act against Snowden now. Backing Russia into a corner was never a wise strategy. Calling Vladimir Putin out – it’s not like he’s going to back down before his own public. It would have been much better, frankly, to let him pass into one of the Central American countries he had in mind, and then it could have been a very different conversation that Washington had with them in order to get him back to put him on trial for the crimes for which he is charged.

So it’s amazing to me as someone who did see intelligence at some very high levels, that a contractor – not even a full-time employee of the NSA – was allegedly able to get access to as much information. So the steady drip is damaging, and it is has gone on much longer than many people had feared.

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Topics: Germany • Spying • United States

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    "...everyone spies...",

    Since the past USPresident Ronald Reagan, US have a great relationship with united Germany.

    However, I do suspect the Jewish evil activities by using American flag with concealed ethnicity, Jewish are working hard to harm the good relationships America has, not only with Germany, but with other Countries as well.

    Some might be examples;
    1) The Indian bombing by Pakistany groups, in Jew shopping Center...
    2) The Kenyan bombing in Jewish shopping Center-"West Gate Mall", the name is copied from Jewish residential and Business street name in Canada, U.S.A,...

    How do we know, if Jew purposely and technically caused flames and make those terrorists to followed them and to caused enormous damages, soon, that could force U.S.A to get involved and response????!!!!

    Be smart, Christians!!!!

    October 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • me

      your racism/paranoid conspiracy theory is a great combo, maybe it was actually lizards who are disguised as humans who are jews pretending to be americans pretending to be islamists trying to complete false flag ops.... and you forgot to point out exactly how attacking that Kenyan mall harms US interests!

      October 25, 2013 at 1:11 am |
    • Karl Marx

      It's 100% the J*wz.

      October 25, 2013 at 1:49 am |
    • saywhat

      While your hypothesis can be challenged, there is no doubt that the current extreme right regime in Israel like previous ones have been using US unabashedly to further their interests and flaunting international community.
      The M.East has become their domain thanks to blind US support.

      October 25, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  2. Quigley

    Eavesdropping will blow over soon. Of course it will and Angie Merkel along with the other gutless wonders who now lead Europe will goi on carrying out orders from Washington D.C. as always, no matter who gets hurt or killed along the way! How revolting this is!!!!!!!!

    October 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
  3. rightospeak

    The CNN is not free to publish truth. It would be out of their propaganda line ,so the Thought Police removed my comments again. Nothing new. I hear how on CNN people are asked to let CNN what they think-only if it matches their propaganda .

    October 24, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • Mel Thomas

      Who did you hear that from? Yourself? If they were manipulating your comments they wouldn't let you post something saying you are manipulating comments.

      October 26, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  4. rightospeak

    With countries it is like with people immoral and arrogant behavior is still immoral and arrogant.
    That was my message and it was removed . Maybe this time it will go through – maybe the Though Police is overwhelmed with comments , maybe they had to go to the bathroom.

    October 24, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  5. rightospeak

    CNN uses totalitarian methods of censorship to mold the public opinion – I want that known. They are not alone. Reuters and others do it as well-so what DEMOCRACY , I ask ?

    October 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  6. JCDavis

    Christian Whiton is misjudging this badly. This isn't going to blow over, this is going to get worse. When Greenwald publishes actual emails or phone calls from Obama as Snowden said he could access, then the claims of Russ Tice will take on a new validity. As well as his speculation that Obama may have been blackmailed by Cheney and his ilk using dirt collected by the NSA from 2004 on.

    October 24, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  7. matslats

    what a whitewash!

    October 25, 2013 at 6:17 am |
  8. Hans

    Do not trust Germans. Germans systematically done worse things against Americans. Americans need to find new real alliance partners in Europe, probably Italy, Great Britain, France, ... but no Germany.

    October 25, 2013 at 7:39 am |
    • George patton

      On the other hand Hans, Germany needs to become more self assertive, return to using the strong Deutschmark and bolt the EU. Even more importantly, Germany needs to quit taking orders from Washington D.C.

      October 25, 2013 at 9:19 am |
      • saywhat

        This spying scandal may well push Europe into taking charge of their destiny instead of looking up to Washington to lead.
        We have turned off Latin America, M.East is no longer under our influence, militarism in Africa may go the same way. Emerging centers of power are taking hold. Our Foreign policy has been in shambles since the Bush-Cheney era of infamy.

        October 25, 2013 at 11:54 am |
      • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

        Thank you saywhat, for your optimism here. The news has been only too grim lately. Let's all hope that what you stated above comes true!

        October 26, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  9. j. von hettlingen

    No doubt this revelation is fodder for the press and politicians, who use the threat to their citizens' privacy to drum up support or to distract attention from their own domestic problems. Some did downplay the issue to keep good relations with Washington.
    Angela Merkel and François Hollande are pragmatic and don't want to let this affair spoil the free trade deal that the US and the EU have started to discuss, which could have benefits to both sides. Brussels sees it as a strategic priority and there are reasons why this will not become a deep, long-lasting rift between Europe and the US.
    Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said: "Let us be honest, we're eavesdropping too" – but then went on to say that it was the magnitude of the NSA operation that had shocked and he was jealous of the US, that had the means to do so.

    October 25, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  10. Tahir

    This is a normal case of spying.EU leaders are just making their people fool.

    October 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  11. ✠RZ✠

    So be it, how about the rest of us focus instead on getting us off this messed up planet.

    October 25, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  12. glennrobert

    Is everyone on this site paranoid?

    October 26, 2013 at 12:58 am |
  13. alexander anyone from the ages 13-21 please check this website out if you are not employed and looking for easy money. starting off with 25$usd when first joined and can earn up to 300$usd on the end of the month.

    October 26, 2013 at 2:24 am |
  14. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    October 26, 2013 at 3:57 am |
  15. rightospeak

    Highly unlikely.

    October 26, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  16. saywhat

    my comments were blocked.

    October 26, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • rightospeak

      Not surprised, must have been some truth to what you wrote, saywhat. CNN MANIPULATES the comments like all the others to agree with their propaganda.

      October 26, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
      • Mel Thomas

        If CNN is so bad for blocking comments why do you keep coming back?

        October 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
      • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

        Don't feel bad, guys. Some of my comments have been blocked here, too.

        October 26, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  17. saywhat

    I don't know whether this is deliberate on the part of CNN moderators or some glitch in their system but@Mel this is supposed to be a public forum and that's why we'll keep coming back.

    October 27, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  18. saywhat

    well our controlled mainstream media does shy away from the truth.
    Thanks@Bimbo, yup that has happened to some of us here and on other CNN blogs.

    October 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  19. saywhat

    The NSA Chief is also now clamoring for 'stopping the media'. Another step forward in a Corporate Surveillance States of America.

    October 27, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  20. saywhat

    @john smith
    I sure hope that you are wrong on your final analysis of a 'failed state'. But i do hope also that we Americans have learned from the follies of these past 12 yrs of futile militarism and failed foreign policy direction.
    Time that we see an overhaul of our foreign policy and some sanity in how we see the rest of the world. Trying to promote and protect the interests of our' closest ally" over US interests and making that the 'corner stone' of our foreign policy has been a dearly costly and strategic mistake. America First is what is needed as our direction. Those dual loyalty law makers in Washington and foreign lobbies on our soil working against American interests need to be kicked out.

    October 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  21. saywhat

    An example in their latest move is that these law makers in Congress and lobbies like AIPAC, FDD, ADL, Heritage Foundation etc have now gone into high gear to sabotage the US-Iran diplomatic initiative which is crucial for US interests.
    Adelson, the billionaire who while eating off of this land of ours keeps working fo
    These need to be stopped.r our 'closest ally' and FDD have called for 'nuking Iran'.

    October 27, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  22. saywhat

    Pl read "Adelson the billionaire who while eating off of this land of ours keeps working for our closest ally and FDD have called for US to nuke Iran". These people need to be stopped.
    I apologize for the mix up with the key board.

    October 27, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Greg Keener

      Thank you, saywhat. Nothing could be closer to the truth! These people need to be incarcerated before millions more are killed in their obscene wars!

      October 28, 2013 at 8:46 am |
  23. Miroslav

    Wake up America! South Korea and Chinese are spying on us, and they are not EU, not NATO members. If we pay for NATO membership we want thourough protection against non-NATO countries. America – you can do it – or you are not powerful enough. Then Western World need to find new NATO leaders.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:41 am |
    • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

      These Tea Partying halfwits like this Miroslav above seem to be coming out of the woodwork like roaches! It's a good thing that ignorance is not contagious or we'd all be in big trouble! It's this kind of ignorance that will bring this country down if we're not careful!

      October 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  24. dudley

    The tragic part is that the NSA will see its failure as one of security, not one of responsibility.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  25. lela

    This is just getting better and better. The spying "sloppiness" is what worries you? Should you not be worried about spying on people in general, not whether you do a good job spying on innocent people or a sloppy job of spying on other people?

    OMG, this is like the Twilight Zone, anyone with a brain out there?

    October 30, 2013 at 1:12 am |
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