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Obama Falling Flat in Europe, Too


After eight years of “Cowboy” Bush, Europe thought it had in Barack Obama a President who could understand them and could talk to them. Five years on, they’re worried that they’re stuck with a cyber-stalker in the White House.

Earlier this week, Germany announced that the US may have been regularly listening in on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls, prompting Merkel to pick up the phone and tell the President what she thought of that more directly. Although the US denies that it has any current or future plans to listen in on Merkel’s calls, it neglected to deny that it had done so in the past, which, for many in Germany, amounted to a confession of guilt. Needless to say, Germany isn’t pleased. The FT reports:

“As a close ally of the United States of America, the federal government expects there in future to be a clear contractual basis governing the activities of [US] services and co-operation with them,” he said. […]

Thomas Oppermann, the chief whip of the left-of-centre Social Democrats that is negotiating to join a coalition government with Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said: “Should this accusation prove accurate it would represent a grave breakdown in trust.”

We don’t know all the facts so we won’t leap to judgement, but if the allegations are true, they’re relatively surprising. It is hard to understand either the national security or the diplomatic case for listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls.

In a world in which few secrets last long, the US government needs to think long and hard about what the appropriate limits are for its surveillance technology. “No limits” is not an acceptable answer.

[Angela Merkel image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • jeburke

    I don’t mean to be flip about this, but wouldn’t you think that Merkel might do more to secure her communications? After all, if NSA can listen in to her cellphone, so can others with a will, and a reason, to do so. Russia? China? For that matter, France (which is good at it).

    The problem here is leaking of secrets by the likes of Snowden, aided by irresponsible journalists like Glenn Greenwald. Political leaders understand that they might be spied upon, but they have no choice politically but to object if the spying is made public.

  • Corlyss

    Well, in typical Eurotrash fashion, they obsess over what ought to be the least of their worries, i.e., whether America, their ally and Protector for the last 70 years, is listening in on the empty little chats of nations that have spent most of that time diligently reducing their own influence in the world.

    What they really ought to worry about is that Obama and his ilk are so crippling the US that when the Islamic coups occur in their increasingly insignificant patch, we won’t be able to pull their self-centered civilizational nuts out of the fire.

    • wigwag

      The only mistake they made was selecting Merkel as the European leader they spied on. Listening in on Berlusconi’s cell phone calls would have been much more entertaining.

  • Andrew Allison

    “. . . if the allegations are true, they’re relatively surprising . . .”??? Why would anybody be surprised by further evidence that the NSA has grossly exceeded its remit? If I were the President, I’d be wondering whether they were listening to my calls too.

    Americans seem resigned to the gross violations of privacy represented by extreme surveillance; perhaps the outrage of foreigners will result in reform.

    • jeburke

      Spying on foreign leaders would not be NSA “grossly exceeding its remit.” Such spying is NSA’s purpose and mission.

      • Andrew Allison

        Mission statement: The National Security Agency/Central Security
        Service (NSA/CSS) leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that
        encompasses both Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance
        (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations
        (CNO) in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our
        allies under all circumstances.
        Just how does spying on the leaders of our allies comport with “and our allies”?

        • jeburke

          Right. The “mission statement” of a spy agency emblazoned on its website has to include everything it does. Silly me, I forgot.

          French, German and other friendly intelligence services routinely have run collection operations against US targets. Former CIA officer Bob Baer said yesterday on TV that in the 80s in Paris, French intelligence used every trick in the book to spy on US interests and personnel there. Others — certainly Russia and very possibly France — are no doubt spying on Germany, too.

          Why? Because knowledge of what other significant players in foreign affairs are saying in private or planning to do with respect to important political, economic and commercial issues gives the possessor of that knowledge a leg up.

          Indeed, the French Foreign Minister admitted in an interview that such spying is universal and that other powers are “jealous” — his word — of the fact that the US has much greater resources to bring to it.

        • Corlyss

          The same way it works when they spy on us. They know we do it; they know we do it. If we catch ’em, we’ll tweak ’em a little like they are doing us. At the end of the day, we’ll still share a beer and carry on the next day. The tweaking is all theater.

      • Corlyss

        Besides, what NSA is doing isn’t spying. It’s data collection. That’s not data usage. It’s just warehousing stuff in case they ever need it. Data collection and warehousing is a heck of a lot easier than writing programs to actually use the data.

        • Andrew Allison

          Corlyss, I have a gently used bridge in Brooklyn that I can offer you a really great deal on [grin]. Why collect it if you can’t use it?

          Thanks for the heads-up about the moderator’s distaste for Hades!

          • Corlyss

            Well, if I can take the bridge as an absentee landlord and charge tolls, I’ll take it. Please produce title . . . [grin]

            “Why collect it if you can’t use it?”
            Oh, it’s not that they CAN’T use it. It’s that they can’t use all of it all the time on everyone. I have some experience with government IT programs big and little. What they have is sophisticated expert systems programming that allows them to target specific users once they know they want to look at those users. The programs can’t do that to all users 24/7. They have too much data to use the way the media keeps trying convince the public they are in danger of.

            What is a bigger threat to the public is the media’s uncritical embrace of a bored and indifferent Dear Leader’s agenda. NSA is the LEAST of the public’s worries. Since the Dems are the one’s flacking this story (Republicans keep saying there’s nothing to worry about), I have to believe the repeated stories and the hype they exhibit is part of a Dem disinformation campaign to take the public’s attention away from the Obamacare meltdown and the IRS scandals that really are worrying. And as I’ve mentioned above, the foreigners are just posturing.

          • Andrew Allison

            Please tell me that you don’t really believe that Angela’s phone, along with those of the other leaders solicited by NSA, wasn’t specifically targeted. To what’s left of my mind, you and jeburke are missing is the distinction between legitimate national security and spying on the leaders of our allies. How does the latter “gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies”? This is, as Merkel said, a breach of trust.

          • Corlyss

            Well, I could be wrong.

            But then you could be too.

            Or we could both be wrong if the scenarios there’s more than two options available.

            My point is, your assumptions depend on the data collection being the same as data manipulation. My assumptions depend on the two being distinguishably different.

            Re: Merkel specifically, I think if the embassy tells HQ that something’s going on regarding America’s strategic interests in Germany, particularly foreign or financial issues, and if HQ thinks the embassy can’t furnish enough info, then of course the NSA will take advantage of what they have.

            Otherwise, no, I don’t think the NSA is targeting Merkel’s communications per se. Ditto our other allies.

            But HUMINT, to the extent that we have it, is much more reliable than trolling a lot of undifferentiated data when you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for.

            You can certainly go on thinking it’s a breach of trust and I suppose it is on a low level, but it’s no worse than human eavesdropping at a diplomatic function. More’s to the point, they do it too. Just because we have better technology to do it doesn’t mean the nature of the “offense” transforms substantially. This is not going to upset any nation such that they break off relations or stop sharing intel with us. They’re gonna think twice about sharing with us because of vetting screw-ups like Bradley Manning and Ed Snowden. In the biz, everyone knows that everyone spies on everyone else.

            I’m starting to repeat myself. I think I’ll stop.

    • Corlyss

      Andrew wrote:

      “Sure, and the webcam in your bathroom is not spying you. The question is, do you trust Big Brother not to make use of its knowledge of what, (hopefully) perfectly legally and innocently, you’ve been doing? I sure as h*** don’t!”

      My reply:

      It’s not a matter of trusting Big Brother. It’s a matter of knowing they are in no position to use the data. And if they’re spying on me in my bathroom, what they see serves them right.

      [Sorry for the clumsy way of handling this, but that word got your post blocked, so I edited it in the expectation that it would NEVER clear moderating, since mine with that useful word never do.]

  • rheddles

    “It is hard to understand either the national security or the diplomatic case for listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls.”

    You’ve got to be kidding.

    Don’t you understand that when you put an unaccountable bureaucracy in charge of listening to other people, it will listen to everyone? And the Germans are surprised? What a laugh. Did they forget about the tunnel?

    The idea of gentlemen not reading other people’s mail went out with the use of the term gentleman.

    And we really don’t know the extent to which it helped keep the peace for 70 years. But it sure worked at Midway.

  • wigwag

    If either Obama or Bush ordered the NSA to spy on Merkel or other European leaders, they should be congratulated for it. Assuming it happened, it would be one of the few things that either President got right.

    • Corlyss

      Agreed. All this theatrical outrage rings false. They do it too. If they could do it to the degree that we do it, they would. BFD

  • wigwag

    Free pollack

    • jeburke

      Oh no. Pollard is in prison because he was an American serving in the US military who disclosed secrets to a foreign power. The fact that Israel was running an agent inside the US military did not affect US-Israel relations but the culpability of the agent is a very different matter.

      • Corlyss

        I agree completely. I’ve never known what Pollard did to so offend them that the Walker family didn’t do. However, I’m not going to lose any sleep over Pollard being in jail till he rots.

  • wigwag

    I do have one question; why should Jonathan Pollard be locked in prison for his entire life for the crime of spying for an ally while Barack Obama and his predecessors feel perfectly free to spy on virtually every single ally of the United States?

    Personally I would feel a lot more secure with Pollard sitting in the Oval Office and Obama sitting in a cage in the Federal Prison in North Carolina where Pollard currently resides.

    One thing is sure, Pollard’s crime and the behavior of the NSA under this President and several of his predecessors are roughly congruent.

  • free_agent

    I thought “No limits* was the NSA’s *mandate*.

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