Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist. Naiveté or hypocrisy? Amid the neurotic outrage displayed in Europe and elsewhere about the activities of the United States’s National Security Agency (NSA), it is hard to know which is more annoying.I have had many dealings with spies over the past 30 years. They are inveterate rule-breakers and sometimes serial incompetents. Their activities create political embarrassment abroad and endanger civil liberties at home. Secrecy makes them hard to supervise. They always want more money and less interference.These are all good reasons not to glamorise the world of shadows. But not to demonise them either. Any government that cares about its security has some kind of agency to recruit and run informants and bug communications. Such outfits divide their time between hunting down terrorists, gangsters and foreign spies, and actively trying to find out what other governments think. The US’s capabilities are the best in the world, especially where electronic spying is concerned. That is why other countries like co-operating with the NSA (not that you hear much about this right now). American spies are also by most standards rather well supervised. No European country has the kind of legislative oversight exercised by Congress. The FISA court adds another level, of judicial supervision. When did you last see German or French spymasters, say, being grilled by a parliamentary committee on live television?Of course, the US’s system could be better. The treatment of whistleblowers by the administration of President Barack Obama is shameful. I would like a public defender in the FISA court to contest the agencies’ requests for warrants. Intelligence officials who abuse their privileges (to spy on girlfriends, for example) should be prosecuted, not fired. Even a handful of such cases is too many.More broadly, we all need to get to grips with the big issues of digital identity, anonymity and privacy, the ownership and control of personal data, and how to deal with accumulated metadata (details about communications, but not their actual content). These are good questions (I am writing a book about them) but they have little to do with the Russian-sponsored anti-American hysteria now gripping Europe.Far from being a scandal, American espionage on Germany is clearly justified. One reason is current and past attitudes there to China, Russia and Iran. Another is that Germany spies too. My latest book, “Deception”, features a startling instance of German espionage on Estonia, using a senior official who was also spying for Russia. This was under the Social Democrat-led government, which also ordered Germany’s foreign-intelligence service to stop operations against Russia (the furious spooks had the last laugh though, turning their attention to Russian organised-crime activities inside Germany, with spectacular results).Espionage should always be seen in its political, historical and moral context. Vladimir Putin’s regime and its security apparatus boast continuity with the murderous secret-policemen of Stalin’s NKVD. That is repellent: imagine if modern Germany’s Verfassungschutz (Office of Constitutional Protection) cited its proud Gestapo heritage. Estonia, like the other countries of central and eastern Europe, was thrown into the mincing machine by the Nazi regime’s secret deal with Stalin. Germany’s historic debt to these countries is best discharged by preserving their security now. That does not include conducting spying operations on them jointly with the Kremlin.The real problem stems not from spies, but from politicians. The US’s claim to moral leadership of the Western world has frayed since the end of the Cold War, partly because of botched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now because of the chilly detachment that Obama displays to his allies. In return, Europe is self-indulgent and introspective. Dealing with that requires leadership on real issues, not grandstanding on pretend ones.