German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition are likely to emerge victoriously from the elections on September 22 – unless a major debacle blows up the equation. So all debacles have been deferred until after the election. The Eurozone debt crisis, Greece or Cyprus, collapsing banks and bailouts, whatever might happen in Italy or Spain, ECB shenanigans – no debacle is allowed to occur until after the election. But just then, over the weekend, a major debacle did happen.
The Spiegel, the largest magazine in Germany, had been able to “see and analyze” some of the documents Edward Snowden had purloined from the NSA. And now the whole world knows that the US intelligence community treated Germany, along with the European Union, France, and other countries, like Cold-War opponents.
Even French President François Hollande tried to slam his fist on the table when he said too softly into the uproar ensuing to his right and left, “we demand that this stop immediately.”
Not Merkel. She’s working furiously on deferring this debacle until after the election. When President Obama was in Berlin, she echoed his words that the then revealed portions of the spy programs had prevented a classified number of terrorist attacks in undisclosed locations on German soil. These programs were necessary to defend Americans as well as Germans against terrorism. Alas, the new revelations show that terrorism is only part of it – that in fact, the NSA has targeted everyone and everything, including companies, bureaucrats, diplomats, and elected politicians.
The NSA collected data on about 500 million phone calls, emails, and text messages per month in Germany alone, the Spiegel reported (article behind paywall) – by far the most of any country on the continent. In France, it was a measly 60 million communications per month.
It confirmed what has long been suspected in Berlin: with White House approval, US intelligence agencies assiduously spy on Germans, German companies, and the German federal government all the way to the top. What’s new is the extent of it – and the possibility, as the Spiegel calls it, of “total surveillance.”
Most intelligence agencies in Western countries are not allowed to spy on their own citizens in their own countries without judicial procedures. That includes the NSA in the US, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) in Germany, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK. But the BND and the GCHQ can spy on US citizens, just like the NSA can spy on German and UK citizens. The logical next step?
The documents show that the agencies work together, that the BND and the GCHQ “assist” the NSA in the surveillance of the internet and telecommunications and that they share data – that is, the BND and the GCHQ might share data on US citizens with the NSA, and the NSA might share data with the BND and the GCHQ on citizens of their countries. Thus, the agencies can get around the limitations on spying on their own citizens. In this manner, all citizens anywhere could be under surveillance by any government, including their own, beyond any kind of effective control and oversight. Hence total surveillance.
While the Spiegel decided not to publish details of operations that could threaten the lives of NSA employees, it wasn’t shy about disclosing how the system worked. Turns out the NSA has bugged the offices of the EU diplomatic representation on K Street in Washington DC and infiltrated its internal computer network, according to a 2010 document. This gave the NSA access to emails, discussions, and internal documents. Total infiltration!
The EU Mission to the United Nations in New York was infiltrated in a similar manner. Documents also showed that the NSA had attacked the telephone system of a building in Brussels that housed the Council of Ministers and the European Council. Those attacks originated from the NSA’s section of the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Another document explained that the NSA has formed alliances with 80 global companies that support the two missions – defending US networks and spying on other networks. They included telecommunication companies, manufactures of networking equipment, software companies, and security firms, all of them identified only by codename. Which could get a bit tricky for these companies. They assured their clients that their data was secure while simultaneously handing it over to the NSA.
Europeans were outraged. Particularly Germans. They didn’t like being called “targets,” as one of the documents had done, remembering all too well Obama’s and Merkel’s protestations in Berlin that the targets of all this spying were terrorists.
“Reminiscent of methods used by enemies during the Cold War,” is what Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, member of Merkel’s junior coalition partner FDP, called it. She has been jumping up and down about the spying scandals ever since the Prism program was revealed.
“The spying has reached dimensions that I didn’t think were possible for a democratic country,” said Elmar Brok, member of Merkel’s CDU and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. The US, once the land of the free, was “suffering from a security syndrome,” he said. “George Orwell is nothing by comparison.”
“A democratic state that uses Stasi methods sacrifices all its credibility as a moral authority,” Markus Ferber, member of Merkel’s CDU and member of the European Parliament told the Welt.
German and European officials far and wide called the media to get their sound bites in. But Merkel, who started her political career in East Germany under these “Stasi methods” and who is phenomenally popular, remained silent. The consummate political animal has no time for outrage. She’s trying to figure out how to defer that entire debacle until after the election.
But the opposition is trying to drag it by its hair into the election campaign. Peer Steinbrück, the SPD’s chancellor candidate and Merkel’s main challenger, demanded that she start an investigation. SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel raised the suspicion that Merkel had known about it all along and had tolerated it – and demanded that she explain herself. Merkel brushed them off with silence.
Meanwhile, a mad scramble has erupted in EU offices around the world to scour buildings for bugs and networks for infestations. The German Foreign Service wants to bring its communication technologies up to date. The Interior Ministry is checking its internal networks. And Merkel’s spokesman had the harshest official words so far: “Monitoring of friends is unacceptable,” he said. “We are no longer in the Cold War.”
That was it, as far as Merkel was concerned. She’d sail right through it, unscathed. And in the German media, the debacle is already moving on to Russia, where Snowden has apparently asked for asylum.