While the US government wants to get its hands on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and crucify him properly, the German government remains red-faced and tangled up in its own underwear over revelations that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s very own Handy was bugged by the NSA. Yet the German intelligence service, like those of other countries, has cooperated tightly with the NSA and its British sister, the GCHQ, to build an all-encompassing, borderless, seamless surveillance society. And they all have become information omnivores.
So the government is trying to doge this mess. I say “government” in a rhetorical sense because Germany doesn’t actually have a government. The winner in the September elections, the conservative CDU/CSU, and the second largest party, the left-leaning SPD, are still churning their coalition negotiations. Compromises are apparently hard to come by.
Nevertheless, the government that doesn’t yet exist doesn’t want any more of these embarrassing details to bubble up. Germany is a mercantilist state. Exports are more important than anything else. It runs a massive trade surplus with the US. And mucking up the previously cozy transatlantic relationship, as the Snowden debacle is in the process of doing, would be a horror. But Snowden’s revelations trickle out relentlessly like Chinese water torture, and now there is a groundswell of support in Germany to offer him asylum.
And not only that. Die Zeit, the influential paper that is taking the journalistic high road, has proposed on its front page that Snowden should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
We have to thank Snowden for our knowledge of the breadth and depth of the spying operations, guest contributor Malte Spitz wrote. “But we owe him protection.” Snowden is paying a hefty price: he lives on the lam and faces decades in prison for treason. To protect him isn’t “anti-Americanism,” Spitz wrote. “He doesn’t deserve punishment but the Nobel Peace Prize!”
That the NSA bugged Merkel’s Handy made her “living proof” of the “limitless, outrageous, and blunt” work of secret services that are “far removed from parliamentary control” and “governmental oversight.” She grew up in former East Germany under the Stasi spy apparatus. Because of this “biography,” she should have a “fine nose” for the limits that intelligence services must never cross. It should be clear to her that personal liberty “must be protected from the reach of the state apparatus.” And that was also true for encroachments by authorities of other countries.
“The perversion of the fight against terrorism must be stopped,” he wrote. Intelligence services would have to be reined in “so that they won’t further undermine human rights.” And Merkel “must build and lead a coalition of the willing” to negotiate no-spy agreements, cancel existing banking and air-passenger data transfer agreements, and pass laws that would protect whistleblowers.” And she should make sure Snowden gets asylum in Germany.
She wouldn’t even have to pick him up at the airport or invite him to the Chancellery. She merely should call Obama and explain to him that the cornerstone of democracy, the rule of law, is crumbling, and that her decision about Snowden “is to be accepted.”
Not to be outdone, the Spiegel, largest German magazine and recipient of numerous Snowden documents, published on Sunday “A Manifest for the Truth,” a one-page text – behind its paywall – that Snowden had written in Moscow and had sent to the Spiegel via “an encrypted channel” [the quotes are my re-translation back into English, normally a total no-no]:
While the NSA and the GCHQ seem to be the worst offenders – as the documents that are now public suggest – we must not forget that mass surveillance is a global problem and needs a global solution. Such programs are not only a threat to privacy, but they also endanger the freedom of opinion and open societies.
At the beginning, “some governments” felt exposed by the revelations of “mass surveillance systems” and initiated a “persecution campaign without precedent” to repress the debate, intimidating journalists and criminalizing the publication of the truth. “Today we know that this was a mistake,” Snowden wrote. “The debate that they wanted to prevent is now taking place in countries around the world.”
And he closed, naively perhaps, that “speaking the truth is not a crime.”
US government officials and lawmakers weren’t impressed. “Mr. Snowden violated US law; he should return to the US and face justice,” said White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer on Sunday. The White House would throw the book at Snowden.
Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, told CBS that Snowden, if he’d been a real whistleblower, would have reported his quibbles to her committee. “We would have seen him, and we would have looked at that information. That didn’t happen, and now he has done this enormous disservice to our country,” she said, furious that her committee never had the chance to immediately suppress everything. “The answer is no clemency,” she said.
So, last week German Green party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele surprised everyone by heading to Moscow and meeting with Snowden and then revealed that Snowden would be willing to brief the German government on NSA spying activities. Ströbele had shown Merkel what could be done if someone just wanted to do it. And suddenly everyone wanted to do it and head to Moscow and talk to Snowden.
To add to the increasingly hot debate, the Spiegel greeted Merkel Sunday morning with “Asylum for Snowden: ‘Welcome Edward.’” It trotted out all sorts of German luminaries, from politicians to musicians. Axel Schäfer, deputy chief of the SPD, told the Spiegel: “Snowden is a hero, not a traitor” and exhorted the government to find a way to grant him asylum. Others chimed in. Then there was former CDU General Secretary, now part-time apostate, Heiner Geißler. It’s “imperative” that Snowden receive asylum in Germany, he said. Sure, the transatlantic relationship might suffer, but what the heck. “Snowden has done the Western world a great service,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to help him.”
How the German government, once it finally exists, will deal with it remains uncertain. Snowden’s revelations have trampled on some nerves, have revealed too much about German data gathering activities, and have left Merkel red-faced. Germany is unlikely to abandon its mercantilist nature, and the collective power of Germany AG is unlikely to remain silent for long, just to save Snowden’s hide. So a Nobel Peace Prize, sure, why not. It has been awarded to all sorts of people. But he better stay in Russia.
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