Commentary Magazine


Eavesdropping and Troublemaking

The European political class seems to have interrupted their bout of indignation at NSA eavesdropping to express indignation over a phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt in which Nuland is heard saying: “[It] would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the UN help glue it, and you know f*** the EU!”

And how is it that we have come to listen to Nuland’s private phone call on YouTube? No one is exactly sure but all the signs point to the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, since the audio was first highlighted in public by a Russian official and posted with Russian subtitles. As Nuland herself noted, “It was pretty impressive tradecraft. [The] audio quality was very good.”

The supposition of Russian responsibility was heightened by the fact that another telephone call has also surfaced on YouTube, this one featuring an EU foreign-policy official named Helga Schmid complaining about the U.S. to the EU ambassador to Kiev, Jan Tombinski. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes: “The recording appears to show Schmid expressing annoyance at the United States for criticizing the EU for being ‘too soft’ to impose sanctions and other pressure tactics against Ukraine. ‘It’s very annoying,’ she adds.”

This is the kind of harmless expression of frustration which is common in private conversations–and which is very different from the way anyone, much less a diplomat, speaks in public. Which is why there is widespread speculation the FSB leaked the calls so as to embarrass both Americans and Europeans and to drive a wedge between them, making it more difficult for them to counter the Russian power play in Ukraine.

Yet somehow much of the European outrage over the Nuland call has focused on the content of her conversation rather than the violation of her privacy. Europeans seem to be ignoring the obvious lesson here that the NSA is hardly alone in intercepting communications–and indeed other countries use such capabilities far more obnoxiously than the NSA does. But then it’s so much more fun to beat up on the big bad Americans rather than on the Russian, Chinese, or European intelligence services, all of which are very much in the eavesdropping business too. Don’t expect to hear a peep, of course, from that noted privacy champion Edward Snowden who happens to be living in Russia thanks to the hospitality of the Putin regime.