Two responses, following up on what other people have been saying about hypocrisy.
First, Dan Drezner on France’s decision to haul in the US ambassador to complain about US spying.
The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains’ character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick’s bar on the flimsiest of pretenses. I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald’s revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France. Here at FP, Shane Harris and John Hudson have noted that the French are shocked about these revelations. The question is whether they’re genuinely shocked… or Claude Rains shocked. In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin’s reportage suggest the latter
This seems to me to miss the important aspects of the story. What is interesting is not whether France (or Mexico, or Brazil, or Germany) is being hypocritical in pretending to be shocked at what the US is doing. It’s whether their response (hypocritical as it may be) has real political consequences. And it surely does. The decision of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to cancel a state visit to the US (and start to disentangle Brazil from what had been an increasingly cooperative relationship) is one example. I have few doubts that if Rousseff had had the option, she would have preferred to have ignored US spying, and gone on with the visit and the burgeoning relationship. But she didn’t have that choice (or at least, it would have been domestically very costly). Similarly, the EU Parliament’s decision on Monday to reinstate rules restricting personal data transfer to the US are a direct response to the Snowden revelations. It is going to be tough for European governments to push back on these rules, even though they would probably like to, because they’re going to face a public outcry if they do. France can’t summon the US ambassador to ream him out about NSA surveillance one day, and effectively accede to NSA surveillance the next. However hypocritical this behavior is, it has consequences.
Second, Joshua Foust interprets our piece as evidence that Snowden is indeed intent on damaging America, rather than securing civil liberties.
Seen this way, you could envision all of these disclosures from Snowden not to be a defense of civil liberties — the documents moved past that a while ago. And it is important to remember: the NSA is legally obligated to surveil foreign communications — that is its explicit purpose as constructed by U.S. law. Rather, they are an attack on the very existence and behavior of the U.S. intelligence community. That may be something some of the most ardent anti-NSA activists, such as Glenn Greenwald, are comfortable doing. But it should raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions among those who merely want reform. Putting the U.S. at a stark disadvantage compared to its most active rivals and competitors — neither Russia nor China face nearly as much scrutiny in their intelligence activities, for example — is difficult to see as anything other than an attack on the U.S., not a defense of anyone’s rights.
This seems to me to be basically mistaken. If Snowden, or Greenwald, were looking simply to ‘attack’ the US, they would be behaving in very different ways. It is pretty clear that they are (or, in Snowden’s case, were) sitting on a hoard of material, some of which is potentially far more damaging to US intelligence (by revealing methodologies etc) than anything they have revealed. What they have chosen to reveal is embarrassing, and revelatory of US hypocrisy, rather than striking at the heart of NSA methodologies. You may like this, or dislike this, depending on your political druthers. But it is far closer to the kinds of actions that human rights NGOs engage in than the kinds of action that spies do. NGOs are under few illusions about governments’ profound commitment to human rights, civil liberties and so on – most governments, much of the time, are prepared to water these commitments down where it is expedient, when they do not abandon them altogether. So what NGOs do is to play the politics of hypocrisy against states, strategically revealing hypocritical behavior so as to embarrass governments into behaving better. Snowden’s and Greenwald’s actions seem to fit very well into this framework. Arguing that China and Russia don’t face “nearly as much scrutiny” is belaboring the obvious fact that it’s tougher to use the politics of embarrassment and hypocrisy against non-democracies than democracies.