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Boston College Expert: NSA Spying

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Jonathan Laurence

Jonathan Laurence
Associate Professor of Political Science
office: 617.552.8991
cell: 617-230-0387
Faculty website

Laurence is nonresident senior fellow in Foreign Policy studies at the Brookings Institution. His research interests are transatlantic relations, Islam in the West, European politics, and North Africa/Turkey. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books; Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings Institution Press, 2006) and  The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims: The State’s Role in Minority Integration (Princeton University Press 2012). Prof. Laurence’s research has been featured in The Washington Post and on National Public Radio, and his articles have been published by European Political Science, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, International Crisis Group, Le Monde, The New York Times, Perspectives on Politics, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Der Tagesspiegel  and other US and European periodicals and think tanks. He is completing a new book comparing the evolution of state-Islam relations in Turkey, Morocco, and Western Europe.



With the German and French delegations heading to Washington D.C. this week for answers and reassurances, the United States once again is on the defensive as it tries to provide satisfactory reasons for why it was eavesdropping on its allies.

“Clearly the NSA has grown to such an extent its capabilities grew much faster than its judgment,” says Jonathan Laurence, an associate professor of political science at Boston College. “There’s an interesting parallel here to American military power which is the question of whether we should do something just because we can. That is an important and necessary debate because we need to think as much about our image and how others perceive us as we do about our naked pursuit of our interest because these two things can collide.”

The revelations the U.S. was spying on its friends, including staunch allies France and Germany, were uncovered as part of the treasure trove of data leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who sought and received asylum in Moscow.

“Those who are most indignant in Europe are those who were around for the days of the Cold War,” says Professor Laurence, a past Berlin prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. “This kind of suggestion that the U.S. is no better than the East Germans of years past unfortunately resonates with the European public but we should not lose sight of the fact these are not our vassal states but are, to some degree, under our protection. We provide a security umbrella world-wide and our interests overlap greatly with their interests.”

Published reports indicate the U.S. may have been eavesdropping on as many as 35 world leaders for years, leading to international outrage and the question of why?

“Each country is out to get the best deal for its citizens and this clearly is morally offensive to our friends and it’s embarrassing but to pretend they are not doing it too is simply naive and you have to ask yourself, ‘Do we unilaterally disarm ourselves out of principal and let the Chinese spy on those 35 world leaders?’ says Professor Laurence. “We have a responsibility to provide genuine contrition and reassurance but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are not the enemy, and they do have enemies. I hope what comes out of this is more integration among like minded countries and that this will seem like a relic.” 

While the outrage from Germany has been strong, Professor Laurence says the indignation from other countries has been measured, largely because they are also in the information gathering business.

“The French cannot say with a straight face they are not trying to do the same thing, but because they don’t have someone pulling the curtain away, they don’t have to say that,” says Professor Laurence. “I don’t think the Europeans should overplay their hand on this. Their indignation is genuine but everyone has intelligence services that are as active as they can be.”

One major negative by-product, says Professor Laurence, is the impact on the image of the United States. 

“This isn’t just about correcting a power imbalance,” says Professor Laurence, “but it’s about potentially shifting the post war equilibrium. The good will and the good faith the Obama administration was able to gain in the world after the mistrust of the Bush years is unfortunately and unjustly evaporating over what may not be sportsman like acts, but not necessarily hostile acts either. 

“The onus is on the U.S. to prove we haven’t misused the information we have gleaned but the unfortunate corollary to that is we cannot prove the good ways we have used that information for the collective benefit of the same security community. Our hands are tied.”

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Sean Hennessey
Associate Director
Office of News and Public Affairs
Boston College

(617) 552-3630 (office)
(617) 943-4323 (cell)