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Cover Story

How the global spy game is changing

Revelations of US spying on European allies have hurt America's image abroad but won't irreparably damage transatlantic cooperation on intelligence gathering. Here's why.

By Staff writer / November 17, 2013

This is the cover story in the Nov. 18 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Illustration by Nancy Stahl

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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalls a French diplomat once querying her at the United Nations in New York about her position on an issue. It wasn't just the usual hallway chitchat. He wanted to know why she had a particular point of view that, as it turned out, she had only communicated to a very few other US officials.

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"I said, 'Excuse me?' " Secretary Albright told a Washington audience recently amid a burgeoning transatlantic uproar over revelations of extensive American spying on Europeans and their leaders. "They had an intercept of something," added Albright, who was US ambassador to the UN and secretary of State under President Clinton, "so it isn't exactly as if this is new."

As National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden continues to dribble out documents detailing the scope of American intelligence gathering, some analysts sigh and remind the world that if spying is the second-oldest profession, then spying on friends is at least as old as the Bible.

In just the few months since Mr. Snowden began divulging his purloined NSA documents, it has become a cliché for US spymasters and analysts alike to cite the famous line from the movie "Casablanca" that has Captain Renault "shocked, shocked to find gambling going on" in Rick's Café. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper couldn't resist when he appeared before the House Intelligence Committee last month, paraphrasing the iconic quote as "My God, there's gambling going on here," before adding that the brouhaha over spying among friends was "the same sort of thing."

Even as revelations of a decade of US intercepts on the cellphone communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel roiled US-German relations, some leaders took Albright's "so what's new?" approach and warned against losing sight of why allies share intelligence and of who their common enemies are.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who held Germany's top office in the critical cold-war years from 1974 to 1982, told the German weekly Die Zeit that he had just assumed that all of his phone calls were intercepted. Adding that he was certain Ms. Merkel's private communications were similarly tapped, he said his advice to Merkel was "to remain calm."

But the revelations of NSA spying on America's friends have touched off a row from Berlin to Brasília – while providing a welcome distraction for Beijing, which earlier this year was the focal point of international ire over cyber-espionage. A key reason, analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say, is that the US espionage enterprise revealed by the Snowden leaks – and global eavesdropping and information-gathering capabilities generally – have advanced far beyond what leaders like Mr. Schmidt and Albright had to contend with when they were in government.

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