The outrage in Berlin following reports of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone being tapped by U.S. intelligence sources is not going to go away quickly, nor is it limited to Germany. At the EU summit this week, the topic of discussion was as much about protecting privacy as it was about protecting the euro.

The backlash in Germany is a politically bipartisan response. Criticism on the left and the right is equally vociferous. Those already critical of the United States for other reasons are joined by those―including Chancellor Merkel― who last summer tried to temper the reaction to revelations about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance contained in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. At that time―and in advance of a close September election―Merkel wanted to bury the issue quickly so that it did not become a campaign weapon against her. That worked then, but now, her reaction is less constrained toward the alleged efforts to wiretap her and her European partners.

The limited response by the White House―an assurance that the chancellor’s phone is not and will not be tapped―is not going to sooth nerves soon. An immediate impact can already be seen in calls to suspend the current transatlantic trade talks between Washington and Brussels.

Yet, the explosion in Berlin and throughout other capitals―Paris, Rome, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo―has apparently been ignored in Washington, where leaders are so preoccupied with their own naval-gazing around Obamacare or preliminary political jousting over elections years away.

At Congressional hearings about surveillance on Americans, members of Congress were quick to seek a microphone. However, when the scandal is concerning surveillance outside the United States, no one seems to care as much.

We have a situation in which there is no “surveillance” of surveillance. The intelligence machinery created to protect the United States over the past decade has been exponentially expanded both in financial and personnel terms, but it seems to have grown without sufficient built-in oversight, despite the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, congressional committees’ oversight, and the creation of the Director of National Intelligence position. The NSA programs are not transparent to those in the White House or Congress because they reflect the default positions of protecting their respective turf and secrets.

No one knows who gave the order for surveillance to include Angela Merkel’s cell phone―or those of the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, or France, for that matter. What is missing in this vast maze of intelligence bureaucracy is not only transparency, but also accountability.

The United States has had previous encounters with this problem. Just a half century ago, President John F. Kennedy ran into an intelligence puzzle when trying to steer through the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of World War III. Conflicted by competing bureaucratic forces, he eventually found his way through the maze.

President George W. Bush was confronted again with conflicting intelligence and military interests and decided on his own path in Iraq, suffering the lasting consequences of bad intelligence.

Presidents have to lead the country, but they must depend on government while also shaping it. They are entrusted with that job by Americans, and they are supposed to be trusted by those partners the United States needs to pursue its own policy interests. In turn, the President needs to trust his own intelligence sources and know that they are operating within the parameters that he or she sets and enforces.

The vast web of the intelligence apparatus is a part of that challenge, but it would seem that neither the president, nor bureau and agency heads have a firm grip on their tools. The means of policy seem to crowd out the ends. That undermines trust at home and around the world.

Regardless of these surveillance accusations’ validity, the damage has already been done to German-American relations for now. Trust is fragile in relationships between people and nations. It can be easily damaged by perceptions as well as realities. Perception of President Obama has always been positive in Germany. Yet, it cannot be taken for granted. The loss of public trust in the United States has serious implications for any chancellor, now and in the future.

To paraphrase French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand’s thoughts on bad policy decisions―they’re worse than a crime; they’re a mistake. If the intelligence machinery is making mistakes, like tapping Angela Merkel’s cell phone, it is the president who needs to take responsibility, admit it, and then fix it. Although shared goals and interests outweigh conflicts in German-American relations, they only stay that way as long as trust preserves them.

Further Reading

Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum speaks with Deutschlandfunk about the growing revelations of U.S. surveillance in Germany and around the world.

  • K Bledowski

    A very lucid interview.

    The answers may well reflect common U.S. thinking about surveillance, new technologies, and the difficult choices about mixing the two. If so, then the tension between the interviewer and interviewee – quite palpable to me in the audio version – also clearly paints a gap in understanding of this issue across the Atlantic. For the Americans, spying (or intelligence gathering) is part of a nation’s defense toolbox. For the Germans, the concept is tainted with first-hand experience in communism and National Socialism. Spying is just bad.

    But then, it could be that I’m wrong on this. When Chinese intelligence broke into A Merkel’s computer system in the Kanzleramt, there was nary a public debate about it. That A Merkel then effusively praised the Chinese-German relations as “build on trust” was telling. “Trust” is what B Obama lost with spying; “trust” is what China gained from spying. I do admit that this issue is fiendishly complicated. Exactly what John Kornblum has said right at the outset of the interview.