NSA spying allegations: Are US allies really shocked?

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel holds a Smartphone
Image caption The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has expressed dismay over the allegations that National Security Agency was monitoring her communications

If the US National Security Agency really has been listening in to Angela Merkel's cell phone, as the Germans believe, then, courtesy of the fugitive US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, the Americans have broken a cardinal rule in the espionage play-book.

Put simply, they have been caught. There has, over recent days, been a flurry of reports indicating the reach of US surveillance activities - to France, Germany and Italy. European governments friendly to the United States are somewhat upset and the Obama Administration is somewhat embarrassed.

I say "somewhat" because, as much of the commentary in the wake of these disclosures has indicated, there is a kind of shadow game going on here.

It is a bit like that moment in the classic film "Casablanca" when the police chief expresses his shock that gambling is going on in an establishment he well knows is a casino, only moments before being handed his own winnings by a clerk.

Almost all governments conduct surveillance or espionage operations against other countries whose activities matter to them.

Some are friends; some are enemies; some may just be in interesting locations or have ties to other countries that are of interest.

'Stuff happens'

What differs is the scope and scale of these operations. This depends upon the motivation and resources available.

Not surprisingly the United States, with its global sense of mission; its constellation of different security agencies; and its technical abilities, has a much longer reach than most.

Image caption The US ambassador to Berlin was summoned over claims that Chancellor Merkel's phone was bugged

Governments may express surprise when such activities are opened up to the full light of day.

Sometimes there can be serious consequences.

Israel and the US are close allies but they each try to get the inside track by collecting information about each other.

But when in 1985 a civilian US naval analyst, Jonathan Pollard, was revealed as an Israeli spy - something the Israelis were slow to acknowledge - he was put on trial and still languishes in prison. For a period, intelligence ties were severely strained.

At other times surveillance can be unmasked but no culprit can definitively be identified.

Back in May 2012 various "back-doors" were found into computer software in the innermost offices of the Elysee Palace - the French president's residence.

The French strongly suspected the US National Security Agency, though the Americans firmly deny any responsibility.

Did that stop the new French President Francois Hollande standing four-square with the Americans and backing military action against Syria?

No - no more than the fact that Israel and the US got over the Pollard Affair and retain close military and security ties.

So "stuff happens" as the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it.

When such episodes are revealed the wronged party, in this current case the French, German, Brazilian and Mexican governments (and the list will only grow) are annoyed.

They have protested. They are saying all the things their own electorates would expect them to say in such circumstances.

France and Germany want to go further and extract some kind of document from Washington certifying that it will "behave itself" in the future.

Other than an act of public contrition, such a document will probably not be worth the paper it is written on.

Image caption The NSA spying allegations have been big news in the German media

Very soon the spies will be back in business as usual.

Or will they?

Because while some of the surprise at the scope of US surveillance activities may be false, this is not all play-acting.

There are genuine concerns and it would be wrong to dismiss all of the condemnation of Washington as hyperbole. Big things are happening in the world and two are of central importance here.

For one thing this is the age of big data, the cloud, and our growing reliance upon machines.

New powers rising

Alongside this the technical ability to monitor, store and sift information is also growing exponentially.

This raises all sorts of real concerns about privacy, the extent of state action and so on, issues that have all been thrust into the limelight by Edward Snowden's revelations. Big data also potentially puts us all at greater risk of cyber-attack and so on.

So where the boundaries of surveillance should lie is almost permanently problematic.

Indeed, so far this discussion has only been framed in terms of surveillance and counter-terrorism.

But the arguments are equally important in the field of defence against cyber-attack, where some argue that similarly large bodies of data - much of it private but transiting, if you like, the public realm - may need to be interrogated.

The other great change is in the international arena. New economic powers are rising.

The US remains a major player but in absolute terms it is less dominant.

It needs to act more with allies to get things done. Concerted action requires trust. US leadership requires a positive image. Today America's soft power - its force of example - matters as much as its hard military might.

That image has been damaged by these revelations.

Those who are sceptical about US power have been given more reason to hold such views and those who welcomed President Barack Obama's desire to turn American foreign policy away from torture and Guantanamo back to one based more on US values will be a little frustrated.