For the second time in as many days, U.S. President Barack Obama is making amends with a major Western European leader for the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance programs, which have extended into the capitals of the continent and, if the latest reports are accurate, the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The new disclosure from documents leaked by Edward Snowden have reignited the flame of indignation in Berlin over U.S. spying there as first reported in the spring, and has brought uncomfortable questions about power and privacy back to the fore in a country still at pains to deal with its troubled past, one that under the Nazi regime and then the Soviet umbrella included generous spying on its own citizens.
We already knew, thanks to a June Der Spiegel report, that U.S. data collection reached into Germany, but the new details — that Merkel’s own cell phone was tapped or monitored — go a step further.
“That would be a grave breach of trust,” a spokesman quoted Merkel as saying in reference to the charge by Germany’s major state TV channel. “Such practices must cease immediately.”
A denial came from the White House, of course, but a coy one that seemed to indicate this may have actually happened.
“The president assured the chancellor that the United States is not monitoring, and will not monitor, the communications of the chancellor,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, leaving out the question of what had been done already.
So the United States and Germany are at risk of seeing what had been a healthy relationship sullied by a spectacular alleged breach of sovereignty on a scale that even Europe’s fave villian George W. Bush never attempted (or at least was never caught doing). Their cooperation on austerity measures and general economic principles is all well and good, but a dramatic break over spying with the whole world watching might be a real setback. In the meantime, as French officials did earlier this week after it was reported American data collection went on there as well, German leaders have been dressing down their American counterparts behind closed doors. What we still don’t know is whether the uproar, coming just weeks after Merkel’s center-right coalition struggled to maintain its grip on power at the polls, will light a fire beneath the electorate, and send German political elites into a more aggressive sort of damage control mode.
Yet one might say the timing is perfect for President Obama, what with his political troubles at home over the botched rollout of his signature healthcare law. That tale of government ineptitude is getting the major play in the domestic press, while the latest tale of America’s aggressive, global data-collection slips beneath the radar. At least on one side of the Atlantic.