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article imageOp-Ed: Understatement uber alles? Merkel says big gap with US over NSA

By Paul Wallis     Jan 29, 2014 in World
Berlin-m - In what may well be a model of understatement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Germany and the US are “still far apart” on the subject of NSA surveillance. There’s a lot unsaid in her statement, and it’s worth a look.
Reuters defines the argument:
In the first major policy speech of her third term, the conservative leader said nobody doubted that domestic and allied foreign intelligence agencies helped to protect the German people from terrorism and crime.
"But does that make it right for our closest allies, like the United States or Britain, to access all imaginable data - arguing that it helps their own security and that of their partners?" she said towards the end of a one-hour speech to the Bundestag.
If the Snowden revelations have achieved anything at all officially, it’s to make this subject a lot more accessible to the public. In practice, it’s unlikely that anyone in the intelligence community was overly surprised by the depth and extent of NSA surveillance. Most western intelligence agencies have had ongoing, active working relationships with US intelligence since World War 2. These relationships were created by the Cold War, and have been in place ever since.
US intelligence has usually been the heavy lifter in terms of range and scope. US technical capacity and expertise has also been very much part of the mix. Germany, which prior to unification was subject to intensive KGB spying, has been a major partner with the US for decades.
The Germans are more likely to have been irritated, rather than angered, about news that Chancellor Merkel’s phone was tapped. It reflects badly on their own security. What Merkel is talking about is the scope of “mass surveillance”.
That is a legitimate issue. Intelligence experts have long questioned the rationale of huge numbers of people being under surveillance. Can you act on information related to 200 million people? Can you process that volume of information?
Also to the point- Is your surveillance data accessible? Is it secure? Can anyone else get at it? Will it be in the headlines tomorrow, or the day after?
Let’s be clear about this- US intelligence information, despite recent appearances, isn’t gathered by some bumbling collection of obsessive people with nothing better to do. The security of that information, its practical uses, and its priorities, however, are open to question. The Manning and Snowden cases haven’t reassured anyone about these issues.
Nor has the “shoot the messenger” approach been particularly credible. These leaks took place onsite, and the various agencies are being given a clean bill of health?
The Reuters report also mentions that Germany is “sensitive” to surveillance after experiences well within living memory of the Gestapo and the East German Stasi. This is somewhat of an understatement.
The foreign picture of German surveillance has suffered badly from media versions of it. The facts were much worse. Even the term “surveillance” has different connotations for the Germans.
If you say “surveillance” to an American or any other Westerner, they have a picture of rogue intelligence agents, nutcase politicians, secret government organizations and maybe a movie. There’s far more fiction than fact.
If you say “surveillance” to a German, you’re talking about concentration camps, executions, torture, and a truly hideous historical fact with no attached fiction. Germany endured this for decades, under surveillance from multiple Nazi agencies, the KGB, Stasi, and god alone knows what else. This is a country which has been under more intensive surveillance than any other, from more different sources.
Surveillance is a verb in Germany, where it’s a noun in other countries. Recent revelations that the NSA has been spying on X box games aren’t exactly the German vision of real surveillance.
The culture of surveillance is also seen very differently. The Gestapo may have been official monsters, but they were also unbelievably intrusive, impacting all aspects of life. They were a type of Thought Police, as well as everything else. They enforced racial laws, and they were highly corrupt.
The cultural gap to which Chancellor Merkel refers is therefore gigantic. Germans distrust surveillance, on principle, even if they realize that it’s necessary. The default German position would be that if surveillance is done, they want rules, structure and clarity, not some vague description of what’s under surveillance.
Merkel also said, with almost unbelievable tact, that there was “no leverage” Germany could use except the force of their arguments, and that the EU/US free trade agreement had nothing to do with the surveillance issue. As a matter of fact, Germany, being the EU powerhouse economy, could make a lot more waves, and would probably get French backing on the surveillance issue.
Germany is pulling its diplomatic and economic punches. Why is open to debate. Germany would benefit from free trade, but it has a card to play that it’s deliberately not playing. The US should be mindful of this situation. When the other guy has an ace, you should respect it.
It’s quite possible that President Obama has managed to defuse the initial fury, and that Chancellor Merkel has accepted his assurances. Future administrations, however, should be aware that trust, when lost, is hard to get back. Doubt is poisonous.
There are possible risks to US intelligence policies in an uncooperative Europe. The NSA operation could wind up with black, unreadable areas on its surveillance program. Information could move very slowly, or not at all. That’s hardly a positive outcome.
Flat footed intelligence operations are invariably bad operations. Some level of understanding of the priorities of other countries must be in place. It’s not at all unlikely that at least one, possibly two, new super powers will emerge soon enough. Mistakes like this could be fatal to US interests.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Angela merkel, nsa surveillance, German history, surveillance in Germany cultural meaning, Gestapo
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