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I travel a lot. In the past six weeks, I have been in Russia, India and Africa. I hear many things about America from everyone.

Several times, I have heard that Sept. 11 was a conspiracy and that it was somehow faked or that Jews knew about it and got out and were not killed or hurt. I am used to hearing about bad things America has done in the world; people are very vocal about their opinions but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught I got this weekend in India. I have had contact with many different types of people, from the well-educated and well off to hotel clerks and people without much formal education.

The topic? America’s spying on world leaders.

People have a lot to say about it. It is in the newspapers here and on television in the hotel gym and just about everywhere you turn. It has changed how people think of America and what people feel about America’s morals.

In India, it used to be that Americans were the good guys and China was not. England, although home to much of the language and business acumen, is not loved in India due to everything bad about colonization, including the taking of the diamond in the British crown from the people in India. America had – despite its forays into foreign wars such as Vietnam and even with current drone strikes to “get the bad guys” – pretty good standing, until now.

One headline in the Hindustan Times stated, “PM may not have cell phone but the U.S. can still spy on him.” The subheadline declared, “His closest aides are tech savvy, could be under NSA scanner.” The article states, “The U.S. intelligence community has undergone major reforms because of two epochal moments. One is the 9/11 attack and the other is the May 1998 nuclear test by India. U.S. intelligence, and particularly the NSA, missed the tests and have been desperate to gather insights into Indian politics, economy and strategic issues.” The article then delineates which of the prime minister’s deputies have cell phones and use email, so they’re therefore targets of the NSA. It goes on to say how email servers may have been used by the NSA as well.

I was asked repeatedly by people why the NSA would spy on world leaders and how America was going to recover from this. Most people in India have a high regard for the actions of Mr. Snowden in revealing just how intrusive the U.S. has been to the rest of the world. It is not that they were surprised that the U.S. had the capacity to spy; it was that the U.S. would have the hubris to do it with countries that are considered our friends. One man, though, told me he had friends in the American CIA, and this had been going on for years.

The newspapers and television have been giving this a ton of ink and space. Sunday’s newspapers had various wire services material from the U.S. and around the world. It trumped the recent hangings in Iran, which usually get a fair amount of ink in this part of the world. A Sunday headline read, “Surveillance comes in form the cold,” and included the full article by David Sanger. It contained a graphic of the history of the NSA and rated higher in the newspaper than President Obama talking about China and India out-educating the United States.

People are not surprised by the technology that our government is using, and most people expect that tuning in on Internet-browsing habits or listening into phone calls is expected. What is surprising is that leaders from around the world routinely had their conversations tapped. Clearly this kind of method of garnering information made it into the presidential daily briefing and has been taking place beginning at the least under George W. Bush’s tenure.

How is it that neither the president nor vice president in either administration did not face consequences? Do we really need to know how the president of Brazil is running her country? Will the phone calls of the German chancellor really shed much information on terrorists that they are not already willing to share? Did anyone think about the negatives of our allies finding out about their phones and emails being tapped? To what end?

We need to begin to look at our morals as a country and have a real debate on the direction of our country.

Drone attacks? Tapping phones of world leaders? Is that how we want to be known? Is that who we are as a country?

These are important questions, and we need to have a policy based in a morality that most Americans can believe in and subscribe to. It is what made us the leader in democracy in the world and is what made 1900-2000 “The American century.”

 

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