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What are the diplomatic costs of the NSA surveillance revelations for the U.S.?

October 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Revelations that the NSA has collected phone and email data from our European allies has created a "serious and awkward diplomatic problem" for the U.S. Former CIA official Philip Mudd and P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state, join Ray Suarez to discuss the diplomatic ramifications.
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RAY SUAREZ: What impact have the revelations had on U.S. interests abroad and intelligence operations?

P.J. Crowley is a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, now a professor at George Washington University. And Philip Mudd is a senior research fellow at the New America foundation, and held senior positions at the CIA, FBI and the National Security Council.

P.J. Crowley, these latest revelations of the surveillance of the communication of heads of state and heads of government, is that a serious breach, serious diplomatic problem for the United States now?

P.J. CROWLEY, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs: It is a serious and awkward diplomatic problem for the United States.

You know, that said, at the end of the day, interests drive relationship. Politics matters. It animates those relationships and the willingness of leaders to stand together in common cause and do whatever needs to be done to keep their respective countries safe, you know, those relationships also matter.

We have been through these stresses and strains before. We went through them with WikiLeaks. Remember that Iraq wasn’t very popular during the Bush administration. So I’m confident that because the relationship between the United States and Europe is so deep, is so broad, is so meaningful, we will get through this. But it will take some time.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Mudd, how seriously should we take the fury coming from Europe today?

PHILIP MUDD, New America Foundation: I think this is a short-term problem.

As P.J. suggested, I’m not sure it is a long-term issue. The issue here though really is not just these revelations in isolation. It is this cascade through the summer and into the fall about spying on Americans, spying on citizens in Europe, spying on foreign leaders.

This cascade is going to, I think, lead to months, maybe a little longer of tension. These political leaders have to respond. But when security services feel a threat, for example, a threat from terror cells, they will continue to cooperate, regardless of what we’re seeing at the political level.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Philip, is there a qualitative difference between the Germans, for instance, knowing that we are looking at their e-mails and phone calls and actually sharing some of that intelligence with them, and the idea that their chancellor’s phone is being tapped?

PHILIP MUDD: I think there is a qualitative difference. I, as a former professional, look at this and say I’m not sure what value you get, what the cost-benefit is when you look at the chancellor’s phone.

I don’t think the cost is worth it. I’m not sure what the value is of those conversations. That said, I could see value in looking at other information across Europe, for example, telephone numbers that might suggest that someone in Europe is talking to a phone number we have on file in a place like Yemen. So there is a qualitative difference in looking at the leader of an allied country, I think.

RAY SUAREZ: P.J., are there specific things that get set back during a period like this, trade talks, ongoing consultations over security, things of that nature?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I think Philip is right that at the intelligence level, the cooperation will go on, provided there aren’t some political decisions. And that’s why the consultations and dialogue that has already started is very meaningful.

I think, in these kinds of things, there’s no bright line between secrecy or surveillance and privacy and intelligence cooperation. Those lines are constantly being redrawn. And so, you know, I am sure that there has been political guidance given to the U.S. intelligence communities already, you know, this is — this was a step too far, pull back, so that a Jay Carney can say at the White House, whatever we might have been doing before, we are not doing that now, will not do that in the future.

So these conversations will go on country by country by country, and new understandings as part of it. But in the substance of this, you know, we are embarking on new trade negotiations. Privacy issues are something that will be negotiated. There is a difference of view between the U.S. side and the European side on where that line is drawn.

And I’m sure this will have an impact in terms of the tone and substance of these negotiations going forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Mudd, even amidst news of bugging high-level phone communications, Prime Minister David Cameron in the U.K. said that this is signaling it to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques, that this is a setback in part because it tips the hand of international intelligence agencies as to how we’re doing this.

Is that a loss from these revelations?

PHILIP MUDD: I think it’s a potential loss, but let’s not overplay that. There is a big difference between what you are collecting, the phone calls of a leader, the phone calls of citizens in countries like France, and how you do it.

This is more a conversation about what we’re doing. It is embarrassing. I don’t necessarily think people are learning about sort of the pipes of how we collect this kind of information in a way that could allow them to avoid our surveillance.

And, furthermore, I’m not sure a terrorist could look at this and say, hey, they have given me a clue about how to communicate more securely across the terror network. The embarrassment here is what we are doing, not how.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that, P.J., that — that in effect there are trails that go cold from this kind of thing? Why don’t you just get rid of all your cell phones if you know that the NSA might be listening to the ones you have got?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I think through revelations that have come through the Snowden affair, back to revelations in 2006, any terrorist, for example, you know, has to know that any time he uses any kind of electronic gear, he is leaving digital fingerprints that will have an impact.

So I agree with that. By the same token, I — you can’t dismiss that in the short term, you know, there haven’t been some, you know, some instance instances where we have lost some intelligence channel because of this. But I think there is this larger question, why would you — why would you spy on your friends?

I mean, think of what we have just gone through in the past 30 days here in the United States, a political circus surrounding the debt, closing of the government. I’m quite confident that leaders overseas turned to their intelligence professionals and said, find out what the U.S. bottom line is here. You know, is the United States going to drive over a fiscal cliff and take the global economy with it?

So, understanding the thinking and psychology of, not only your adversaries, but also your friends, that actually paves the way to identify shared interests and pursue them together.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, Philip, are there assets that need to be rebuilt? Is this going to cost a lot of money as well?

PHILIP MUDD: I think it possibly will.

When you look at the adversaries we really worry about, that is, things like international crime syndicates, terrorists, they are going to be — in my experience, they’re going to be studying this very closely for tactical clues about how they avoid this. It is not this instance in isolation that the chancellor’s cell phone was intercepted.

As P.J. said, if you are a terrorist and you don’t know your cell phone is being intercepted, you are not a very good terrorist. It is the cavalcade of information over the summer that a terrorist is going to look at on the Internet and find clues about how to avoid us. That will cost a lot of money to catch up over time.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Mudd and P.J. Crowley, gentleman, thank you both.

P.J. CROWLEY: Thank you, Ray.

PHILIP MUDD: Thank you.