Inside Story

Big brother

Popular unease about US surveillance of German citizens could pose a problem for Angela Merkel as national elections loom, writes Klaus Neumann

Klaus Neumann 15 July 2013 1981 words

German activists display a photo of US president Barack Obama and pictures of whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning during a protest about US surveillance. Ronny Hartmann/AFP

WHEN the Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung asked Peter Picha about the surveillance practices of the US National Security Agency, or NSA – exposed by contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden in early June – the seventy-five-year-old said he felt disgusted that the United States had breached his trust in this way. Another participant in the German daily’s vox pop survey, fourteen-year-old Lisa-Marie Bögershausen, was similarly appalled: “Germany shouldn’t put up with this behaviour. From now on I will be much more circumspect about which data or statements I publish online.” Seventy-seven-year-old Renate Ulfikowski called for new laws to curtail the activities of intelligence agencies, and told the interviewer, “In my opinion, Edward Snowden ought to be granted asylum in Germany.”

The Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung’s local section doesn’t usually concern itself with events that happen outside Hildesheim, a city of 100,000 in the north of Germany, or its hinterland – or indeed with national or politics in general. (On the same day that it reported the response to the NSA revelations, the lead article in the local section, “The Odyssey of Thaira,” dealt with a burglar, an open door, and a dog that had strayed onto a freeway.) But over the past fortnight, discussions about the NSA have been ubiquitous in the German media, and the Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung’s coverage has been no exception. When they are not writing about the extent of the spy scandal, German newspapers instruct their readers about how to avoid being spied on: by encrypting their emails, for example, or by using the Deep Net.

Like Renate Ulfikowski, many Germans want their government to offer political asylum to Edward Snowden. They include leading representatives of the Greens and of the left-wing Die Linke party, as well as some prominent Social Democrat or Free Democrat politicians, including the leader of the Social Democrats in Schleswig-Holstein, Ralf Stegner, and the justice minister in the Hesse state government, Jörg-Uwe Hahn, a Free Democrat. Hahn went so far as to suggest that the European Union should call on Barack Obama to return his Nobel peace prize.

The German government has ignored Hahn’s intervention. On 2 July, foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, another Free Democrat, decided that Snowden could not be granted asylum in Germany. According to a foreign affairs spokesperson, the decision was made on formal grounds: because Snowden isn’t on German territory, he can’t claim asylum. This argument is shaky – the German embassy in Moscow could send one of its cars to meet Snowden at Sheremetevo airport, where he is holed up, and he could then request extraterritorial asylum, or the government could accommodate him on humanitarian grounds, as suggested by Greens leader Jürgen Trittin – but so far the government of Angela Merkel, with the tacit support of the opposition Social Democrats, has been unwilling to countenance the idea of harbouring the whistleblower.

But that doesn’t mean that the government didn’t budge at all. With national elections in two months, Merkel is obliged to pay close attention to what people like Peter Picha think. On 29 June, the respected EMNID Institute released poll results which suggest that 58 per cent of Germans consider Snowden a hero and only 19 per cent see him as a traitor. According to the same survey, more than half of the population is worried about the surveillance. Earlier this month Merkel called Obama to protest against the NSA’s activities in Germany, and last week she dispatched her interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, to Washington to solicit definitive answers and credible assurances from the Obama administration.

THE story began on 6 June, when the Guardian reported that Verizon, the largest mobile telephony provider in the United States, had been ordered to hand over the phone records of millions of its customers to the National Security Agency. The next day, the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed that under the PRISM program, launched in 2007 during the Bush presidency, the NSA had access to the servers of nine internet providers, “extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.” On 9 June, the Guardian published an interview with Edward Snowden, thereby disclosing the source of its information. By then, Snowden had left his job with NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, moved out of his house in Waipahu, Hawaii, and fled to Hong Kong.

Initially, the German government claimed to know nothing about PRISM and half-heartedly tried to defend the US authorities. On 16 June, interior minister Friedrich told the daily Die Welt: “Anyone who is genuinely responsible for the safety of citizens in Germany and Europe knows that the US secret services have again and again provided us with crucial and correct information.” But Friedrich sounded poorly informed and out of touch, and his sentiments were evidently not shared by other senior members of Merkel’s government.

Growing unease about the NSA’s surveillance overshadowed Obama’s visit in Berlin on 19 June, and seems to have dominated discussions between him and the German chancellor. In a joint press conference with Merkel, Obama defended PRISM, claiming that it had saved lives. “We know of at least fifty threats that have been averted because of this information,” he said, “not just in the United States but in some cases threats here in Germany.”

Snowden, who left Hong Kong for Moscow on 23 June, continued to feed information about the nature of the surveillance to selected media outlets. On 21 June, the Guardian told its readers that the British Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, was tapping fibre-optic cables to access internet and phone communication. Codenamed Tempora, the program was aimed, said the Guardian, “at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible.”

This time, it wasn’t law-and-order proponent Friedrich, but justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a Free Democrat known for her strong defence of civil liberties, who responded on behalf of the German government. She described the GCHQ’s eavesdropping as a “Hollywood nightmare,” and on 25 June sent strongly worded letters to British justice secretary Chris Grayling and home secretary Theresa May – incidentally on George Orwell’s 110th birthday, as the Guardian noted.

On 29 June, the German magazine Der Spiegel, also relying on information provided by Snowden, claimed that the NSA was monitoring more communications in Germany than anywhere else, and that it was spying on the German government, including Chancellor Merkel. The magazine also reported that the NSA had bugged the offices of the European Union, including its diplomatic posts in Washington and New York. A week later, Der Spiegel followed with a story that has made it difficult for the German authorities to assume the role of innocent victims of American spymasters: not only the NSA and the GCHQ were involved, Der Spiegel reported, but Germany’s own Bundesnachrichtendienst intelligence service, or BND, has also been an active participant in the operation.

The turbulence triggered by the Guardian and Washington Post articles has become a maelstrom. The revelations about the indiscriminate tapping of phones and monitoring of internet-based communications are threatening to get in the way of negotiations between US and European Union representatives about a free trade treaty, which commenced last Monday in Washington. French president François Hollande indignantly demanded that the talks be suspended – three days before Le Monde revealed that the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure intelligence agency has a program similar to the NSA’s PRISM.

“There are times when it becomes apparent how the world really works, what its true inner logic is,” said Der Spiegel in last Monday’s issue. “Then the mist lifts, and the world suddenly looks different. These times are now.” For many Germans, things are not what they seemed to be. Germany may be an economic powerhouse, but politically it is a paper tiger whose sovereignty has never been fully restored, notwithstanding the German Treaty that made reunification in 1990 possible. Many Germans believe that their trust in the United States, restored by the election of Barack Obama, has been betrayed – not least by Obama himself, who turned out to be not quite the same man who had been feted in Berlin in June 2008 when he visited Germany during the presidential primaries.

Germans live in a country in which the state has unfettered access to personal details. They are required to register their place of abode and carry an ID card at all times. In the 1970s, the West German federal police pioneered programs designed to identify potential terrorists by comparing data from a host of sources, including utilities such as electricity providers. At the time, the vast majority of West Germans approved of indiscriminate surveillance and the harvesting of personal data – both because they feared the presumed targets of anti-terrorist measures and because they loved the authorities that claimed to protect them from those they feared.

There was less to fear a few years later, when the West German government decided to do a census. Planned for 1981, postponed until 1983, then cancelled because of a successful high court challenge, and eventually held in 1987, the census was controversial because many Germans feared that the state was collecting identifiable data. Many people refused to fill in the forms, and an organisation coordinating the boycott of the census collected more than one million forms that had not been completed.

Twelve years after 9/11, the fear of Islamic terrorism has subsided, the enthusiasm for an Obama-led America has waned, and fourteen-year-olds are afraid that American, British or, for that matter, German spies invade their privacy. Edward Snowden is considered a hero rather than a traitor, and Frau Merkel is trying to distance herself from Mr Obama and denying that she knew all along about PRISM and Tempora and whatever tricks the Bundesnachrichtendienst was up to.

Interior minister Friedrich, who has just returned from talks with US vice president Joe Biden and attorney-general Eric Holder, may have tried to explain to the Obama administration why millions of his compatriots have fallen out of love with the big brother in Washington, and he may have asked Biden and Holder to appease German voters. But Friedrich received only vague assurances during his visit, and had to resort to rehashing his own earlier argument: the snooping is a justified preventative measure that targets terrorism and organised crime.

Friedrich’s boss, who had earlier declared that “bugging friends is unacceptable,” wouldn’t have been bemused by such professions of transatlantic loyalty. Merkel still seems to be a safe bet for a third term of office, but she must be wondering how best to contain potential electoral damage. Maybe she ought to take up a suggestion made a few days ago by George Mascolo in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He suggested that she demand that the free trade treaty be complemented by a treaty committing the United States not to spy on its European allies, and that, if Obama were unresponsive, she should return the Medal of Freedom he awarded her two years ago. Or maybe she ought to seriously entertain the idea of inviting Snowden to Germany. Given Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s claim yesterday that Snowden “has enough information to cause more damage to the US government in a minute alone than anyone else has ever had in the history of the United States,” even the Americans may prefer dealing with a recalcitrant Germany rather than with a hostile Russia that is presumably offering hospitality in return for access to the information on Snowden’s laptops. •