What’s Behind the Spying?

It’s Much More than about Terrorism –It is about American Competitiveness

by Stephen Bryen
Now more revelations are coming in about U.S. spying on friends and allies.  The latest is found in stories in Germany’s Der Spiegel and France’s Le Monde.  In the former case, Der Spiegel reveals extensive U.S. spying in Mexico targeting the Mexican President, his cabinet officials, and Pemex, Mexico’s mega-petroleum company.  In the case of Le Monde, that newspaper reveals that the U.S. was able to tap into France’s under-sea telephone and Internet cable system and access millions of fixed and mobile phone calls and an equal number of email accounts and data transfers.  France regards the matter as so serious that the French Foreign Minister summoned the U.S. Ambassador to complain.
One can expect in the days and weeks ahead, more spying stories.  The tentacles of the NSA system are wound tightly around allied and friendly countries, around American citizens, and around hostile places too.  Effectively, NSA has been able to exploit a key American advantage –virtually unlimited funds to carry out vast phone and internet tapping, and a technology advantage because most communications technology is designed in the United States (although much of it is manufactured in Asia).
The NSA “cover story” is that extensive spying is necessary to stop terrorism.  But NSA has been hard pressed to demonstrate that its phone and Internet spying has actually helped stop terrorism, and targeting the President of Mexico or key government and industrial leaders in France, Germany and many other countries, is absolutely divorced from having any linkage to terrorism.
In fact, the United States has been carrying out political and economic spying.  Terrorism probably accounts for only a small portion of what the mighty NSA collection apparatus sweeps up.
Why is this?  There are three explanations.
First, NSA’s “customers” are U.S. government agencies and organizations.  Each of them wants information in their area of responsibility –for example, the State Department wants to know what is really going on in target countries, or the Commerce Department wants to know how to promote U.S. business abroad.
For many years it was supposed that, unlike certain foreign intelligence gathering activities that are tightly linked to local industry and local financial interests, the U.S. was a more benign operator: only supporting legitimate U.S. government agency requirements.  But the massive spying and wide range of targets suggests otherwise, leading to the notion that the U.S. government is feeding not only its own government agencies, but also tipping American industry to help it compete more effectively.
Second, NSA is well placed to help secure a U.S. economy that is barely surviving as U.S. debt rises and as a vast number of U.S. jobs are exported to Asia.  This means manipulating money supplies, knowing what central banks in other countries will do, and trying to find some advantage in an increasingly dismal economic portfolio.
Thirdly, NSA may be helping “get back” some of the technological advantage the U.S. has lost.  A key area of concern is the erosion of the U.S. commercial aerospace industry which has been successfully challenged by France.  Boeing, trying to leapfrog technologically from a deepening lack of innovation, has spawned the 787 aircraft series –a nearly all composite airplane fraught with a multitude of problems.  Knowing what Airbus in France is up to has to be a high priority not only for Boeing, but for the United States which needs to try and hold on to aerospace jobs and try and re-secure future aerospace leadership.
For many years U.S. officials and their American industry partners ran around complaining that the French were stealing American aerospace technology.  Yet they could not explain why the French commercial aircraft were innovative while the American ones were not (sort of the Detroit syndrome), and they also did not want to say that whatever technology France got, they bought (not stole) from American companies.  Maybe these complaints were just a smokescreen to try and defend a sinking, though vital, industry.  (We can recall that Airbus won the American refuelling tanker competition, worth billions of dollars, only to have it stolen back by American politicians.)
The problem NSA now is encountering is that the work it is doing to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and preserve the U.S. economy and America’s political standing, is being exposed.  Maybe the American Ambassador in Paris can tell his counterparts: “We won’t say we did it, but if we did, it gave us an advantage.”
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