The saga of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has cracked open a leak as wide as the Titanic's, should make for a nice sequel to the "The Terminal." In that Spielberg movie, Tom Hanks—suddenly a man without country—is marooned at JFK airport. He can't go home, nor will the authorities deport him. So it is with Mr. Snowden at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Hollywood's screenwriters must be at work already. The title could echo Jane Austen: "Hype and Hypocrisy."
The co-star is the NSA, also known as "No Such Agency," with Barack Obama in a supporting role along with French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The movie could steal a scene from "Casablanca," where the police chief explains to Humphrey Bogart why he had to close down his Café Américain: "I am shocked, shocked to find out there is gambling going on in here." At which point the croupier sidles up to the captain: "Your winnings, sir." Mrs. Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, recently mimicked this scene, insisting that "listening in on friends is unacceptable, an absolute no-no."
But while it may be uncouth, the habit is as old as the world's second-oldest profession—recall Moses dispatching his spies to the Promised Land. Everybody spies on everybody, and for good reason. States, guided by interest rather than love, like to know what others are up to—friends or foes. The rule, though, is: don't get caught. Jonathan Pollard, having spied for Israel, is still serving a life sentence.
Intelligence lore has it that France spies more heavily on the U.S. than any other European ally. The land of raison d'état also fields the DGSE, a middle-power NSA, which according to Le Monde, sweeps through millions of telephone calls, emails and social media entries. Like the NSA, it wants to know who is talking to whom, when and wherefrom. It does so at the "margins of legality," adds Le Monde. A 2006 EU directive obliges providers to store such "metadata" for six months.
Yet like the police chief in "Casablanca," the French president last week drew himself up to his full hauteur to demand a halt to the EU-U.S. talks on a trans-Atlantic free-trade deal. Luckily, the European Commission called out "Your winnings, sir," and declared that it would go ahead with the trade negotiations despite the Prism controversy. And for good reason: The EU stands to gain more from the deal than the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Merkel government has begun to climb down in the face of Mr. Snowden's tales, according to which the NSA monitors between 15 and 60 million transmissions daily from Germany alone. Mr. "No-no" Seibert now concedes a longstanding cooperation between Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) and U.S. agencies, all in accordance with "law and order." The Intelligence Committee of the Bundestag knew all about it. Of course, the German government also remains keenly interested in the trade talks, which began in Washington this week.
This means that Mrs. Merkel is unlikely to be too impressed by news magazine Der Spiegel, which has condemned the NSA's snooping as a "state crime" and urged Berlin to grant asylum to Mr. Snowden. And well she might remain tranquil. For there are three hard facts that speak more loudly than Mr. Snowden's words.
First, the discreet collaboration between the BND and U.S. spy agencies goes back to the very birth of the Federal Republic. Though the number of U.S. troops in reunified Germany has dwindled, the huge white listening spheres dotting the Bavarian landscape near Bad Aibling are an enduring testimony to the two countries' hand-in-glove relationship—regardless of the departure of Russian troops in 1994.
Second, both the U.S. and Germany have profited handsomely from this relationship. During the Cold War, the BND was Washington's choice supplier of intelligence from the Warsaw Pact. It is said that the BND alerted the CIA of the impending Soviet march into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Another war story has it that the West Germans were first to know about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, in 2007, U.S. snoopers told German security agencies about the terror plot of the "Sauerland Group" of homegrown terrorists. They did so on the basis of intercepted emails—the very "unacceptable" activity that Berlin recently denounced.
Third, the lady doth protest too much. It so happens that American agencies supply the Germans (and, one assumes, other Europeans as well) with information they are either technically unable to fish out of cyberspace themselves, or are prohibited from doing so. Thus one hand washes the other. Not quite kosher, but not to be dispensed with.
Still, best not to know. This is why presidents and chancellors have always kept their distance from their intelligence services. The reigning principle is "plausible deniability"—until the story erupts. The Prism debacle, stirred up in the bowels of NSA's Fort Meade headquarters, is but the latest chapter in an old drama. In 2001, the European Parliament published a report about the infamous "Echelon" system, jointly managed by the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which survived the Cold War and was being used to spy on "private and commercial" communications.
Yet the huffing and puffing has always subsided—for good old reasons of state. There are just too many plump fruits falling off the Anglo-American spy tree. And the Europeans will continue to savor them as long as they are unwilling to put up the funds for a Euro-NSA. It is so convenient to have the Americans tell you what the Russians are up to in Syria, or which homegrown terrorists are looking for a training camp in Pakistan.
Realism (or resignation) finally tells the Europeans that cutting the umbilical cord will leave them worse off than ever. The U.S. and Britain will continue to snoop anyway, but without delivering goodies to the Europeans. Such are the cruel facts of life among nations. Now back to the marooned Mr. Snowden.
Mr. Joffe is editor of Die Zeit and fellow at the Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford. His "The Myth of America's Decline" will be published by W.W. Norton in the fall.