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EU claims 'shock' over spying. US says, really?

President Barack Obama met the latest allegations of U.S. spying with a shrug.
Surveillance camera in trees pointed near architectural glass facade. (Photo by Abban Ryan/Gallery Stock)
Surveillance camera in trees pointed near architectural glass facade.

President Barack Obama met the latest allegations of U.S. spying with a shrug.

"Every intelligence service, not just ours, but every European intelligence service...wherever there's an intelligence service, here's one thing that they're going to be doing: They're going to be trying to understand the world better," Obama said. Intelligence gathering on allied nations, he suggested, is not just morally permissible but common practice. "That's just how intelligence services operate."

The president was responding to reports that the NSA was electronically spying on some 38 embassies or missions in Washington, D.C., including those of the European Union, France, Greece, Japan, Mexico, India, and South Korea. Standard operating procedure or not, the alleged wiretapping has drawn public denunciations from EU officials and leaders of the unions' member states.

"If the media reports are accurate, then this recalls the methods used by enemies during the Cold War," German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told the press. Germany's Federal Prosecutors' Office is reportedly looking into the allegations and considering launching a formal investigation.

Such shirt-rending is to be expected in statements to the press, but it's unlikely to be very sincere, said former CIA official Paul Pillar.

"Anyone who believes that the gathering of foreign intelligence, including on the diplomacy of foreign countries, is confined by some bright line between allies and non-allies is naive," Pillar, who now teaches security studies at Georgetown University, told msnbc. "And if we think that those who proclaim themselves to be allies for us are not spying on us, that is naive."

Case in point: Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence analyst who pled guilty to being an Israeli spy in 1987. "Israel never ceases to proclaim its status as an ally to the U.S.," said Pillar, and the Pollard affair did little to change that.

There is a chance, however, that Europeans genuinely believe the United States has gone too far in this case. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, an international treaty to which the United States is a signatory, is supposed to protect free and private communication between embassies and their home countries. While the surveillance technology allegedly being used by the United States was not yet invented when the treaty was written, its use is "pretty close to a violation of the letter of the treaty, and definitely a violation of the spirit of the treaty," according to Eric Posner, an international law expert at the University of Chicago.

"The Europeans seem more upset than they usually are about things, so they may feel that the United States violated an unwritten rule," Posner told msnbc. While international law is "incredibly fuzzy...and of course countries have violated the treaty constantly," Europe may still consider the particular tactics allegedly employed by the U.S. to be a serious breach of decorum.

"Even with adversaries, just like the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, there are various ill-defined but generally perceived rules of the game," said Pillar. "If you go too far in collecting stuff against me, I'm going to complain."

Philip Bobbitt, director of Columbia University's Center for National Security Law, said that extensive surveillance against allies was simple malpractice.

"If you're prepared to take the very expensive time to collect against people you already know very well, you should probably be in some other line of work," he said. "The costs to collect are not trivial, and the cost of pretty high."

Now that allegations of surveillance are out in the open, the costs may be higher yet.

"If I were the secretary of state, I'd be pretty upset," said Pillar. The next time that secretary of state John Kerry sits down with the Europeans, he said, they're likely to use the allegations as a bargaining chip to extract further concessions.

"In the next discussions with the likes of the Germans, this will figure in at least subtly in terms of what we want them to do and they want us to do," said Pillar.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Kerry said he did not know the specifics of the spying allegations, but that similar tactics are fairly common among various nations.

"I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that," he said. "All I know is that it is not unusual for lots of nations. But beyond that, I'm not going to comment any further until I have all the facts and find out precisely what the situation is."