In “Das große Missverstehen,” AICGS President Dr. Jackson Janes details the disconnect in American and German perspectives on the ongoing scandal over U.S. and European surveillance practices, especially the U.S. National Security Agency programs leaked by former employee Edward Snowden. Published on the second page of the Süddeutsche Zeitung on November 13, 2013, this article is originally in German; the English translation is below.

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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. But there are many Americans who don’t understand it and much of that has to do with the differences between Germans and Americans when it comes to the relationship between privacy, the role of the government, and security concerns.

The muted response by the White House―an assurance that the chancellor’s phone is not and will not be tapped―may not soothe German nerves soon. But there is also a corresponding backlash in Washington. During recent Congressional hearings on the NSA surveillance policies, some politicians expressed their own kind of outrage against the outrage in Europe, arguing that the NSA was operating within the law to protect the U.S. and indeed even those in Europe protesting the surveillance. In many ways, this transatlantic communication clash has been an accident waiting to happen.

The political explosions in Berlin and throughout other capitals―Paris, Rome, Madrid―have met with a mixture of surprise, some sympathy, and, in the U.S., impatience as well.

While many Americans are currently questioning the degree of surveillance aimed at them by U.S. intelligence services, they are more inclined to accept it as a fact of life. The approach to these matters is not a question of whether the government snoops but how much is appropriate and with how much oversight it needs. The debates over the alleged sharing of information by Google, Yahoo, and Facebook with the government is less about whether it happens and more about what limits are to be placed on it, who has oversight responsibility, and where accountability is found.

The outrage in Europe about U.S. surveillance practices is viewed by some Americans as a mix of naïveté, hypocrisy, and moralistic posturing. The fact that European intelligence groups also engage in surveillance―sometimes in cooperation with the Americans―pops up in these criticisms.

Clearly some Americans are more sympathetic, given concerns about their own government intruding on their privacy. That includes some members of the Congress, even those who have been advocates of the expanded intelligence efforts in the past.

And then there are those who resent the accusations that U.S. surveillance policies are malevolent, citing them as useful tools for security against global terrorist threats. The fact that Edward Snowden is considered a hero worthy of asylum in certain German circles is portrayed as hypocritical, particularly in light of the long postwar relationship the U.S. had with a divided Germany, apart from the fact that Snowden is accused of breaking federal laws.

The initial angry reaction in Europe has received substantial coverage in the national U.S. media but these various responses in the U.S. reflect different parameters of the U.S. domestic debate.

Following the old axiom that “all politics is local,” most people are concerned primarily by those things which impact their own lives. Average Americans don’t work themselves into a frenzy about government intelligence activities largely because they don’t always see how they are directly impacted. In the wake of 9/11, they assume that some sort of surveillance is always going to be present in the name of national security. There is an ongoing debate about how much is watched and who watches the watchers. The Snowden leaks have certainly heightened that argument. But the worry in American circles focuses primarily on surveillance of Americans―leaving foreigners out of that concern.

That Germans are hyper sensitive to such practices might be appreciated in light of their history. But the accusation that there is equivalence of American surveillance with the old East German state domestic spies or even the Nazi period is seen as exaggerated and indeed insulting.

Yet the fact is that both sides of the Atlantic are guilty of some levels of hypocrisy in this debate about surveillance.

In this explosive digital age environment, we don’t have a firm grip on our national instruments in intelligence gathering, or on our ability and readiness to share resources across national borders, or how to deal with the vast network of the cyber world.

The intelligence machinery created to protect the United States over the past decade has been exponentially expanded both in financial and personnel terms. And, perhaps, the United States possesses the tools to quickly close this gap. In government circles, the American capacity in intelligence gathering is truly global, as it is in the corporate sector―even though all countries have their own surveillance versions. The reach of the U.S. capacity is justified in a framework as a needed resource to protect the country and its interests around the world. That includes the potential advantages it can offer to its allies.

Yet the recent reaction in Germany to the surveillance revelations illustrates that this justification is not trusted. If the U.S. argument is that global surveillance is a global necessity, it also needs to recognize that it is a global problem which needs a global solution in which everyone has a stake. For both Germans and Americans, that means it is not only about you. It is about the challenges of the digital age in which power is about both connection and protection.

  • K Bledowski

    A very persuasive set of insights.

    I would add one other possible source of the disconnect. The digital revolution of the past 20-30 years has shrunk the space of privacy quite a bit. It could be that it’s hard for all – ordinary folks like me, policy makers, and even business – to fathom the depth of these technological breakthroughs. Digital frontiers shift so fast now that they sometimes appear ahead of “real time”. In this fluid space some of us accept that the line between the private and public domains may have blurred. The Americans (and many others) seem to have “digested” this phenomenon better than the Germans. Why? Perhaps because ordinary folks on the west coast of the Atlantic took to these technical changes earlier and so became keener to internalize their attributes. In a more interconnected world people keep getting closer. Along the way comes attrition of privacy as we’ve known it. But if Europe is a step behind today, it’ll catch up eventually.