How Leaks about NSA Surveillance Affect America's Role Around the Globe

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, This is The World. Okay, so the hot topic for President Obama's summit today with the Chinese president was supposed to be hacking, as in Obama confronting Xi Jinping over China's efforts to hack into American computers. Now there's another hot cyber security topic to add to the agenda, revelations this week about the U.S. government's ongoing surveillance of foreign email and electronic content. Oh, and don't forget yesterday's news that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans. Earlier today Obama issued a strong defense of his government surveillance practices, which he said are needed to prevent terrorist attacks.

President Barack Obama: I think it's important to recognize that you can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society.

Werman: The president also said that a modest encroachment of privacy was worth the added security. The statements come just hours before Obama sat down to talk hacking with the Chinese; makes for some awkward diplomacy at the very least. But New York Times correspondent James Risen doesn't think Chinese leaders, or others around the globe, are all that shocked by that.

James Risen: We've already seen stories over the last few years about the growth of offensive cyber operations by the United States against Iran and other countries. And so, you know, it really raises questions about whether or not the Chinese will respond to American criticism given the fact that they know that the United States involved in many, pretty similar activities. And so, the question for the United States is can we distinguish what the Chinese cyber espionage and its focus on commercial gain by stealing American corporate secrets, that somehow that's more unethical or more, morally more questionable than our targeting of foreigners for other purposes.

Werman: And that could be a really tough circle to square. Is this going to be like a really awkward moment for Obama on cyber security?

Risen: I'm sure that they'll try to ignore it. [laugh]

Werman: But it's supposed to be at the top of the agenda. They're just saying, all right, let's move on to number two.

Risen: Right, right. I mean, you know I kind of think that that's not really what the meetings are all about.

Werman: James, just in light of these reports on spying in the U.S., what weight does the U.S. have to stop cyber espionage coming out of China or anywhere when now the U.S. has been shown to be spying themselves?

Risen: Well, I mean, the Chinese know that. They know that we spy, they know that, you know, that the NSA is more powerful than anything they have. The NSA is the best at this in the world, and so that's not a particularly big secret among other intelligence services. So this is not news to really anybody, I'm sure, in the Chinese government, or in the Russian government, or the Iranian government. It's just a matter of becoming public is a little more embarrassing. So I don't really think it'll affect any behavior on anybody's side.

Werman: So, a lot of Americans saying today, we were the last ones to find out.

Risen: Yeah, that's usually the thing about leaks is that when the government complains about leaks really what they don't like is it becomes too public and too embarrassing, and what they don't like to admit is everybody really kind of already knew.

Werman: James Risen with the New York Times. Thank you so much.

Risen: Sure.