The United States and its sprawling surveillance regime are in the headlines again, and that’s wonderful news for Vladimir Putin.
The media firestorm over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of European leaders raged on Tuesday, the German parliament responding furiously to reports Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cell phone was tapped. Lawmakers raised the possibility of bringing in fugitive leaker Edward Snowden as part of its investigation, which would surely prove a blockbuster television event. And, of course, Spanish newspapers reported just one day earlier that tens of millions of communications in that country were recorded, a scale of data collection on par with that reportedly taking place in France and other E.U. powerhouses, though U.S. officials insist the data sweeps constitute routine intelligence sharing with allies.
Suffice it to say Putin benefits from the suddenly quite volatile dynamic between the United States and its traditional Western European partners. Not only can he take personal delight in the sullying of America’s reputation, an ironic twist to the Obama presidency that was once poised to refurbish it, but the furore around spying serves to distract from Putin’s own woeful human rights record. And he’s already begun to capitalize, slapping new criminal charges on opposition leader Alexei Navalny while nobody is paying all that much attention. Indeed, some might argue that the presence of Snowden in Russia lends perverse credibility on civil liberties to the former KGB officer-turned-pol.
Obama’s government is taking steps to reassure allies surveillance of their political leaders will halt, perhaps hurried by a sense that this is more than just a matter of reputation or even security; there are potential economic consequences of a collapse of E.U./U.S. trust as well, such as a delay in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. So we can expect the White House to keep up the damage control until European leadership feels it can save face and claim victory. The wild card remains whether Snowden might actually take part in a European parliamentary investigation of U.S. spying, and just how far opposition leaders in France, Spain, and Germany go with their prosecutorial zeal. At the very least, it’s clear aggressive surveillance in the name of anti-terrorism is a hallmark of the Obama White House, one few could have anticipated from the left-wing former president of the Harvard Law Review when he took power in 2009.