The reaction in Germany and throughout Europe to the revelations of NSA surveillance continues to swell in bigger waves. The information drawn from the computers of Edward Snowden enrage many, disappoint others, and generate more questions about the oversight of the American way of intelligence gathering.
While the defensive argument that “everybody does it” is offered by some apologists, it is no more convincing than claiming “it is in the interest of security for us all”. The larger questions overshadow such explanations. Who authorized what, to watch whom, and for which purpose? The fact that countries engage in intelligence gathering is nothing new. Whether it be industrial espionage or security concerns, the need for intelligence is unavoidable in a networked global arena. That said, most democracies haves rules pacing limits on intelligence gathering of its own citizens. Those rules don’t exist in authoritarian systems.
On the global stage the rules are less clear, despite various agreements or treaties. In matters of state, sovereign governments decide what is in their best interests. In the United States—a country equipped with exceptional tools and the perception of a super power—the arena for intelligence gathering is global. Everything is deemed relevant intelligence no matter where it is found. That was the case well before 9/11 but it became an exponentially larger policy afterwards. Comprehensive surveillance at home and abroad seemed both urgent and blessed by Congressional approval during the last decade, despite consistent warnings about excessive overreach and illegal intrusions into the private spheres of citizens. That battle continues to be fought in courts and in Congress involving the alleged abuses of power and authority in the name of national security.
Nevertheless, oversight over surveillance outside of the United States is less subject to public debate. Who decides what is of strategic value remains in the hands of those behind closed doors. When engaged, the courts—particularly the court responsible for overseeing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)—tend to be cooperative in granting the government permission to pursue surveillance at home. But there are still some tools to challenge those policies and practices, though they may be relatively unknown to most Americans.
Yet what recourse remains for non-citizens, governments, and organizations outside the boundaries of the United States? The enormous reach of intelligence tools does not stop at national borders, no matter which country is carrying out the surveillance. In recognizing a mutual need for information and intelligence, countries can and do agree to share what they know. However, information is a powerful resource and thus not easily surrendered.
The dispute that has come to the surface in this transatlantic discord is in part a clash of world views and assumptions about both responsibilities and accountability. The United States holds the assumption that it has the responsibility to observe the entire globe for both its own interests and its security, and it possesses the capability to carry that perceived responsibility out. Yet if the United States wishes to insist that it is an exceptional national leader on the world stage, it needs to have an exceptionally strong commitment to living up to the standards it espouses for itself and for others, while monitoring closely where it comes up short. America needs partners that it shares a mutual trust with in order to gain support to meet tomorrow’s challenges successfully. Not all countries are interested in cooperating, but all are vulnerable and all have a stake in sharing ways to protect our shared privacy and security. There are threats as well as opportunities in crafting a path forward together, and such an arrangement cannot be taken for granted.
Germans, like Americans, worry about the invasion of their private space and are adamant about the limits of government intrusion. But while Americans seem to be less upset about surveillance outside the United States, the German reaction is far more sensitive—this having much to do with the experiences of the recent past in East Germany as well as in the Nazi dictatorship. They are furious with being singled out in the documents revealed in the press as objects of massive surveillance by the U.S. The attitudes reflected in both the language and tactics within these documents depicting a mix of hubris and condescension only serve to fuel such anger. Nevertheless, as a former front line in the Cold War, Germany can hardly deny that intelligence gathering is a necessary tool in the real world. Still, Germans and other Europeans are rightfully upset in learning that they are not in control of their privacy.
The current crisis is now one of mistrust. It is affecting both our domestic debates as well as relations across the Atlantic by undermining the basic foundation of these relationships. With Germany’s unification in 1990, Americans and Europeans believed in a shared goal – a commitment to the alliance and a willingness to build upon that accomplishment by creating a larger transatlantic community. The path was not always an easy one, but it seemed that the larger shared goals always overshadowed the interim arguments about how to fulfill them. Maybe this current crisis will be another case in which arguments can be managed and consensus reached. But it has to be based on trust in a shared outlook on both goals and means, a notion that must be shared by both leaders as well as the public. Neither can nor should be taken for granted.
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