New revelations about U.S. spies reading the e-mails of Mexico’s president and eavesdropping on millions of private phone calls in France have proven to be an embarrassment for the Obama administration. But experts aren’t surprised by the news, revealed in documents leaked by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.
France summoned the U.S. ambassador to express its outrage over the incident, which was revealed Monday in LeMonde. French Prime Minister Ayrault said: "It's incredible that an allied country like the United States at this point goes as far as spying on private communications that have no strategic justification, no justification on the basis of national defense."
Yet the outrage may be more for domestic consumption. Le Monde reported in July that the French government was storing personal data of its citizens on a supercomputer at the headquarters of the French intelligence service.
“There’s absolutely nothing shocking here at all,” said John Schindler, professor at the U.S. Navy War College and, like Snowden, a former National Security Agency analyst. “This is what intelligence services are supposed to be doing. The French do the exact same thing. Everyone does this. The NSA is just better at it than many other countries.”
Schindler said that more than 100 countries target U.S. government communications, and that is why the NSA has built up counter-intelligence operations. Schindler said that while everybody has eavesdropping or spy capabilities, the NSA is better at decrypting messages.
“It’s the flipside of modern telecommunications,” Schindler said. “All advanced countries have modern (signals intelligence) capabilities. Those are always directed at foreign countries with which they have economic and political interests.”
German media reported over the weekend that U.S. agents had hacked the e-mail account of former president Felipe Calderon beginning in 2010, as well as accounts used by cabinet members. The accounts contained "diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico's political system and internal stability," according to the NSA accounts published in Der Spiegel.
This operation was knicknamed "Flatliquid." A second operation was run against presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto during his successful 2012 campaign. NSA operatives intercepted texts and cellphone calls made by Pena Nieto himself. Mexico’s foreign ministry called the spying “unacceptable” and Pena Nieto has called for an official inquiry.
Last month, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff called off a state visit to Washington after similar revelations of NSA spying on Brazil’s Petrobras state oil agency surfaced.
While spying on U.S. allies may not be surprising, news of a vast electronic data collection program run against allies may be tougher to smooth over, according to Harold Trinkunas, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“These are countries that maintain friendly relations with the United States and I think this might have crossed some sort of line that will affect bilateral relationships for some time,” Trinkunas said. “Clearly the current message that everybody spies and it’s routine is not a satisfactory answer for Brazil, Mexico and France.”