The old expression “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” might be applicable to the current surveillance debate on both sides of the Atlantic. The public outcry over the disclosure of the NSA—and its British counterpart—snooping through emails, phone records and websites is causing ripples everywhere. Yet a closer look reveals differences in the allegations and agendas.
The revelation about the data gathering in the United States and Great Britain, compliments of Mr. Edward Snowden, has generated outrage as well as demands for disclosure of what information is being captured and for what purposes. While the transatlantic community is framing this leak in relatively polite terms, other countries like China see an open door to turn the spotlight on the United States as the chief culprit of espionage—even after China’s own efforts to hack through U.S. computers have been thoroughly documented.
For Germans, this latest scandal has conjured up memories of the recent surveillance of the old East German regime and its state security system, leaving many angry at the thought of such actions. Some even use comparisons with the “Stasi” to describe the American and British intrusions into their privacy.
The American and British intelligence “hammers” have been developed to a technological point where an ever increasing numbers of “nails” can be targeted. Both intelligence agencies have been able to carry out such monitoring simply because they have the technical prowess to do so. The oversight on the limits of these hammers has landed in a legal and political grey zone between civil liberty and civil security, and no one has a clear picture of the right equation between the two. In that sense, Chancellor Merkel had a point when she was trying to refer to this unchartered territory as “Neuland”.
In contrast to the hammers used by the old German Democratic Republic or today’s remaining authoritarian regimes such as in Beijing where there is no oversight other than determined by the powers in control—the combination of a free press, institutional checks and judicial recourse remain tools for those challenging such intrusions in today’s free societies. Democracies have methods of self-correction. Dictatorships deny they need any.
That said, the current display of recrimination and rebuke in the public sphere in the wake of these revelations challenges both the intentions and the explanations for the policies behind them. That is an overdue development. There needs to be a relentless set of questions aimed at what governments or other entities do with this mountain of information. Hiding behind “top secret” signs can become all too self-serving for those who do not wish to have their motives questioned. Ask someone who has been mistakenly put on a “no fly” list how difficult it is to get off. Franz Kafka could write another novel about that.
The challenge to find a balance between liberty and security in the twenty-first century remains a work in progress. The nature of such balance also determines the mix of tools required. Equally important is the willingness and ability to seek a consensus of trust, both within our respective societies and across them. That is a vulnerable asset, put at risk when governments don’t trust their citizens or their national counterparts. Hoarding information in an age when information means power is a growing problem.
Throughout American history there has been a default attitude to be cautious about central government powers. The U.S. system of government was framed by that caution. Along with such concern came a tendency to be not only skeptical but also fearful of government control—a characteristic Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style in American politics”—a version of which takes the form of various tea party groups today.
But the reaction to the NSA programs has also revealed a paranoid style toward American politics in other countries. The readiness to point fingers at the United States is not new in Europe given the asymmetric transatlantic equation of influence and power over many decades. Yet the fact is that the domestic debates and acrimony about America’s policies are often louder than those outside the country.
There is no doubt that Americans are still struggling with post-9/11 fear and anxiety. The latest bombings in Boston were a recent reminder. That does not excuse mistakes and excesses which have occurred in the last decade when it comes to using hammers or obsessing about nails. We need more than a hammer when it comes to dealing with threats. At the same time, wishful thinking does not prevent violence – as many countries have had to learn the hard way, in the UK. Spain, Norway, etc.
Germans might share with Americans a deep-seated suspicion of the intrusion by the government into their private sphere. Yet Americans seem to be more accepting of the protective role of the state, especially since 9/11. How would Germans react to such an experience? Hopefully they will not need to answer that question. Yet there still remains a serious challenge as to how we share our tools and our strategies in preventing more tragedies wherever they might threaten. To resolve this tenuous balance between preserving civil liberties and security, we need a more civil and transparent debate. After all, the stakes are the same on both sides of the Atlantic.