Runaway US spying rattles European leaders
Merkel is reported to have called President Obama twice in protest. In an unprecedented move, the German foreign ministry also called the US ambassador to protest the operation. Merkel is so known for her reliance on cell phones that she earned the nickname "die Handy-Kanzlerin" (the mobile phone chancellor). As such, tapping her phone would access almost all her key decisions and discussions.
Merkel was criticized in the German press for her delayed reaction. Germans blamed her for ignoring the problem until it reached her personally. For months, there were reports in the German press about large-scale monitoring by the US of German ordinary citizens' e-mails and phone conversations. The Germans even coined a new word for it: Handyüberwachung, "handy" being the word for a mobile phone. Despite those reports of widespread US spying, the German government refrained from voicing criticism until this week.
European press has been awash with stories of phone and Internet spying in Europe by the US. For example, it was reported that seventy million phone calls, e-mails and text messages were monitored by the US National Security Agency in France in just one month.
Of more relevance to our region, it has been revealed that a joint US-UK operation involved spying on Middle East and African communications from a node in Italy. Italian newspapers cited Edward Snowden-supplied documents showing that there are at least two programs targeting Italian phone calls, Internet and e-mails. One program called Prism is run by the US and the other called Tempora run by the UK. Tempora appears to be directed at intercepting data exchanges between Europe and the Middle East, Africa and Asia. According to those reports, the objective was to decipher "political intentions" of various governments and trace weapons trade, including legitimate official trade.
Such large-scale spying is associated in our minds with totalitarian regimes. Nazi Germany and Communist Russia probably invented the practice, popularized by George Orwell in his novel 1984. But from what has been revealed so far, it appeared that those early efforts pale in comparison to the mammoth operation that the NSA has undertaken.
European politicians have been indignant about the news, but it is not clear how many of them were actually surprised by it. Chancellor Merkel, for example, said that she had "made it clear to the president of the United States that spying on friends is not acceptable at all.”
Reflecting demands discussed at the Brussels meeting that new rules have to be agreed upon regarding data security, she added that, "It's become clear that for the future, something must change — and significantly. We will put all efforts into forging a joint understanding by the end of the year for the cooperation of the (intelligence) agencies between Germany and the US and France and the US, to create a framework for the cooperation."
European leaders rallied behind Merkel. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that he supported her "completely in her complaint and say that this is not acceptable.” Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said the EU needed to take concrete action, “We cannot accept this systematic spying.”
French President Francois Hollande said that "trust has to be restored and reinforced" between the US and its European allies.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta told an Italian newspaper that it was "inconceivable and unacceptable" that there were "acts of espionage of this type" and that he wanted "all the truth." Those sentiments were echoed by many of the European leaders attending the Brussels Summit.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was conspicuously silent, perhaps because Britain has been implicated in some of those reports.
What all of this reveals is a spying agency gone wild. It also shows the slippery slope that was started during previous American administrations when procedures for approval of local wiretaps and interception were gradually loosened. Presumably, violation of people's privacy is aimed at stopping criminal activity, not to gain political advantage. We remember what happened when President Nixon wiretapped his political rivals and had to resign in the ensuing scandal. To make sure that executive authority does not abuse that exception, most countries require a court order to undertake such surveillance.
However, it seems that when it came to foreign espionage, the NSA was not encumbered by either legal, ethical or diplomatic considerations. That it has tapped cell phones of some 35 world leaders, and hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens, including some of America's closet allies demonstrate that it has not considered any limits to invasion of privacy, as the recent revelations in Europe have made clear.
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