Did Germany and France Really Think the U.S. Wouldn't Spy on Them?

Israeli leaders have long assumed Washington is listening in on its phone calls to international leaders.

Among the nations friendly to the United States whose leaders recently discovered that they were the target of American eavesdropping, Israel is conspicuously absent. British daily The Guardian reported last week that 35 countries were subject to American electronic surveillance but did not provide the full list. Several of the states, including Germany, Brazil and France, are now demanding clarifications from Washington, following the leak of National Security Agency documents by Edward Snowden.

So far, Israel has been mentioned only as a possible accomplice to American spying. A report in the French daily Le Monde on Thursday cast indirect suspicions, based on vague assumptions that the Mossad was involved in spying on the Elysee Palace.

Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told Israeli newspaper Maariv that the Americans are also listening in on Israel. This assumption (a fact, according to Yatom) is shared by senior officials in the intelligence establishment and by past and current cabinet ministers. Prime ministers Netanyahu and Sharon repeatedly ask/asked their interlocutors whether they are/were speaking over land or wireless lines, based on the assumption that the Americans listen in (and making the unfounded assumption that landlines are more immune to eavesdropping than cell phones).

Often, in discussions with journalists regarding sensitive issues, cabinet ministers and senior defense officials express concerns about eavesdropping. Usually, they are not worried about the army unit responsible for protection of information, or about being questioned by the security services. Even Iranian intelligence does not concern them. The main suspect is the United States, with Russia in second place.

Spying among friends is considered an unavoidable fact of life in Israel. However, what is forbidden for small countries that depend on a superpower’s aid is apparently permissible for the superpower. The four leaders still apparently immune to spying are those of countries that have mutual intelligence-sharing agreements that forbid spying on each other. These are Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Given these facts, the shock expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande is somewhat surprising. Did they really think the Americans wouldn't eavesdrop on them? Top U.S. officials (President Barack Obama reportedly did not know about the eavesdropping) enabled this for two reasons: the technology was available; and they didn’t think they would be caught.

U.S. allies probably assumed that the Americans had the capability. Their mistake was in assuming that it would be used only for "legitimate" purposes such as tracking terrorists or spies from hostile countries. It turns out the Americans didn’t stop there, and utilized opportunities that the technology presented.

More than divulging terrible American secrets, Snowden - and the serial leaker who preceded him, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning (who transferred files to WikiLeaks) - exposed some embarrassing documentation. As pointed out last week in an article in American magazine Foreign Affairs, it is doubtful that Snowden or Manning caused any harm to U.S. security. However, now that its activity has been exposed, the U.S. cannot play innocent. Its friends know what it is doing behind their backs. The era of hypocrisy is over.