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NSA scandals caused rift with U.S. allies

No single issue has caused greater damage to the trust between the United States and its allies than the sweeping revelations of the National Security Agency's global surveillance programs. This story continues to fuel the perception that we no longer care to uphold our values at home or abroad. Our credibility has suffered by failing to sufficiently justify our actions even to ourselves. It is finally time to undo the damage.

Recent presidential and congressional measures concerning espionage and data privacy have the potential to bolster our credibility, counter these misperceptions and restore trust with our allies. Congress failed to vote on the USA Freedom Act last week, but the bill itself demonstrates our resolve to protect the privacy of all U.S. citizens and end bulk data collection. The NSA is also taking unprecedented steps to protect the rights of those at home and abroad. It is imperative that we explain and advance these evolving norms, particularly with our allies across the Atlantic.

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Since the revelations last year by Edward Snowden, a debate has raged in Europe about why the United States had collected information about leaders and citizens abroad. The firestorm of ill-informed opinion about U.S. intentions and capabilities has led to the perception that our allies must protect themselves from the United States. The consequences of this are evident in the slow pace of negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, implementation of countermeasures against U.S. intelligence activities and even discussion of lawsuits against the United States before the International Criminal Court.

The U.S. government has struggled to respond to the outrage in Europe. President Barack Obama outlined the new parameters for foreign intelligence collection (Presidential Policy Directive 28) in a speech last January that was met with skepticism. This slowly led to a "statement of principles" delivered quietly by his chief of staff to his German counterpart this past July. Congress has been too distracted and too divided to lend much support to these attempts at public diplomacy.

The time is ripe for a renewed exchange to diffuse tensions caused by the NSA revelations. Senior congressional leaders such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, should describe the privacy protections outlined in the USA Freedom Act to their counterparts in the European Parliament and German Bundestag. The bill ends the bulk collection of Americans' private metadata and enhances democratic control over the NSA's activities. While a final vote was delayed until 2015, the bill is a powerful declaration that the United States can align the tools we use to secure our country with our basic rights and freedoms.

The NSA's guidelines on foreign intelligence collection released this October are also a unique expression of democratic constraint. They outline how the agency will ensure that privacy is an "integral consideration" in collection operations and that all people are treated "with dignity and respect regardless of their nationality or place of residence." Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and former NSA Director Mike McConnell are credible, high-level actors to communicate this message of restraint to European audiences in Brussels and Berlin. America benefits when its allies spend their time and resources on emerging threats elsewhere in the world — and stop worrying about the United States.

U.S. business leaders should also join this effort. Many are threatened by the possibility of being locked out of European government contracts and are being targeted by strict privacy laws that may prove significant obstacles in the negotiations on TTIP. They have an important opportunity to show how their products actually enhance privacy and why it is important to preserve the benefits of the open Internet.

It is has become the norm in Washington to cynically dismiss Europe's uproar over the NSA: Europe should "get over it" because all European countries engage in espionage. The U.S. government shouldn't have to explain how it protects both Americans and Europeans from terrorism and other transnational threats. U.S. tech firms provide goods that all Europeans enjoy and should not have to put up with strict privacy laws and regulations.

So why care?

The United States and Europe share core, democratic values that undergird our vision of the international order. By strengthening our commitment to shared values — liberty, democracy, human dignity and economic freedom — we reap benefits far beyond our ability to project power in the world. There is no zero-sum tradeoff between privacy and security. We will enhance both when the United States and Europe restore confidence and trust.

Parke T. Nicholson is the senior research associate with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. His email is pnicholson@aicgs.org.

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