The Handyüberwachung Disaster
By ROGER COHEN
Published: October 24, 2013 240 Comments
BERLIN — Germany, of course, has already concocted a compound word for it: Handyüberwachung. That would be spying on cellphone calls.
The U.S. surveillance in question targeted the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Or at least she was convinced enough of this to call President Obama, express outrage at a “serious breach of trust” and declare such conduct between allies “completely unacceptable.”
The White House’s assurance to her that the United States “is not” and “will not” monitor her communications was tantamount to confirmation through omission that in the past it has.
Merkel is measured. For her to lift the phone and go public with her criticism leaves no doubt she is livid. As she said last July, “Not everything which is technically doable should be done.” This, on the now ample evidence provided by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, is not the view of the N.S.A., whose dragnet eavesdropping has prompted fury from Paris to Brasília.
Obama, in his cool detachment, is not big on diplomacy through personal relations, but Merkel is as close to a trusted friend as he has in Europe. To infuriate her, and touch the most sensitive nerve of Stasi-marked Germans, amounts to sloppy bungling that hurts American soft power in lasting ways. Pivot to Asia was not supposed to mean leave all Europe peeved.
But all Europe is. The perception here is of a United States where security has trumped liberty, intelligence agencies run amok (vacuuming up data of friend and foe alike), and the once-admired “checks and balances” built into American governance and studied by European schoolchildren have become, at best, secret reviews of secret activities where opposing arguments get no hearing.
The disquiet of Snowden that turned him into a whistle-blower now encounters overwhelming sympathy. Impatience is high with statements from the Obama administration that surveillance is under review. A backlash could see Europe limit its sharing of financial and other data with the United States or impose heavy fines on American telecommunications companies that pass on European user details. The word “ally” is beginning to feel like a 20th-century idea that has lost its relevance.
None of this serves U.S. interests. Intelligence, counterterrorism and military cooperation with Germany and France, the two nations most outraged by recent disclosures, is critical. The relative power of the United States and Europe is declining, so cooperation is doubly important. Of course it will continue, but Obama faces a crisis of confidence in trans-Atlantic relations that vague promises about seeking the right balance between freedom and security will not allay. Merkel wants specifics; she is not alone.
Even before this furor, Germany was incensed by what it has perceived as a dismissive U.S. attitude. A senior official close to Merkel recently took me through the “very painful” saga of the Obama administration’s response to Syrian use of chemical weapons. It began with Susan Rice, the national security adviser, telling the Chancellery on Aug. 24 that the United States had the intelligence proving President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that it would have to intervene and that it would be a matter of days. German pleas to wait for a United Nations report and to remember Iraq fell on deaf ears. Six days later, on Friday Aug. 30, Germany heard from France that the military strike on Syria was on and would happen that weekend — only for Obama to change tack the next day and say he would go to Congress.
Things got worse at the G-20 St. Petersburg summit meeting the next week. Again, Germany found the United States curtly dismissive. It wanted Germany’s signature at once on the joint statement on Syria; Germany wanted to wait a day until a joint European Union statement was ready and so declined. “The sense from Rice was that we are not interested in your view and not interested in the E.U. view,” the official said. “We left Petersburg very offended. This is not what you want your best partner to look like.”
Germany found the atmosphere at the summit terrible. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, insisted the Syrian opposition was behind the use of chemical weapons. He compared this to the Nazis burning of the Reichstag in 1933 in order to blame and crush their opponents (the fire’s origin is disputed). Putin, to the Germans, appeared much more powerful than Obama. His strengthened international standing after America’s Syrian back-and-forth worries a Germany focused on bringing East European nations like Ukraine and Moldova into association accords with the E.U. This European rapprochement is strongly resisted by Putin, who wants a Eurasian Union that bears an eerie likeness to the old Soviet Union.
Geopolitics on this continent is not dead. A re-pivot to Europe is in order, as is an internal U.S. security-freedom rebalancing. Handyüberwachung on Europe’s most powerful leader is the last thing America needs. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/25/opinion/international/the-handyuberwachung-disaster.html?_r=0