Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Trust Them? Really?

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 29, 2013 --  

Raging German anger over American spying offers the best hope yet for reigning in the NSA.

When an angry German Chancellor calls you, asking if you have bugged her phone, it must be a pretty awkward conversation. So it wasn’t surprising when a fast-talking President Obama apologized to Chancellor Angela Merkel and said he would have stopped the spying on her had he known about it.1

The details of this conversation would have been fascinating to hear, and a lucky few in America’s National Security Agency might have gotten to do exactly that. The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag quoted a NSA official who virtually called Obama a liar for his denials to Merkel, saying he knew her phone had been bugged since 2010. "Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue.” 2

The NSA released a carefully worded denial, saying NSA Director Keith Alexander didn’t tell Obama about the program at any time. 3 Notably, though, it did not categorically deny informing Obama. Since then, the Los Angeles Times has quoted angry NSA officials, thrown under the bus by the president, as confirming Obama knew4. Anonymous folks from the White House have issued further denials to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Apparently not placated, Merkel’s government announced plans to send her spy chiefs to Washington to demand answers.5

These events would be diplomatically embarrassing for any world leader. They are particularly sensitive for Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany under the repressive eye of the Stasi secret police.

This similarly explains the outrage of the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who was once jailed as a subversive by the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Like Merkel, she was angered by reports that a friendly government had spied on her, and has pushed for United Nations action against NSA activities.6

Is it fair to compare NSA to the spy agencies of repressive regimes?

In a July Interview , Merkel rejected comparisons between the NSA and the East German intelligence, saying doing so only trivializes the crimes of the hated Stasi.7 She hasn’t publicly said whether being bugged has changed her view. But her distinction is correct -- for all its overreach, there isn’t widespread evidence of the NSA is targeting American dissidents.

One possible exception. Last year, a CIA drone’s missile killed an American citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the teenage son of an alleged Islamic militant8, probably based on information from the NSA. The government’s refusal to discuss its justification and the lack of a public court review means there is no way for Americans to know what really happened or why.

Certainly, this single case does not compare with the countless executions and detentions of East German citizens that resulted from Stasi activities. And an even bigger difference between the NSA and the Stasi is one of sheer efficiency. By official accounts, the Stasi employed 91,015 East Germans9 to spy on a country of only 16 million. A museum of its spy gear in Berlin shows laughably primitive tools.

The NSA by contrast has only around 30,000 employees10, but manages to snoop on an unfathomable volume of electronic communications around the world. This gives the NSA an immense and secretive power to look into the lives of dissidents that the Stasi could never have dreamed of.

Can we can trust the Obama administration not to abuse this information? Perhaps. But can we trust that the next administration won't give in to temptation? Or the next?

American officials justify board NSA surveillance by saying it has thwarted numerous terrorist attacks and it is necessary to continue protecting Americans in the future. It must be secret, they say, because revealing what they are doing will help the terrorists avoid surveillance. Trust us, they say.

This stock argument was evicerated when they got caught bugging the German Chancellor’s phone. Just how exactly did this help fight terrorism? And how many of the other eavesdropping activities conducted by the NSA , almost all without public disclosure or review, are equally unjustifiable? Trust them? Really?

Unfortunately, the American people so far don't seem to care. A small size of an anti-NSA protest outside the US Capitol on Saturday11 testifies to the public’s indifference. Most Americans seem content to have their government spying on everyone in return for its vague promises that it might somehow protect them from "terrorists". They are completely oblivious to the dangers to their liberty that has been created in the name of keeping them secure.

Ironically, it is not pressure from Americans, but from foreign governments, like Germany and Brazil, that offers hope for reigning in threats to Americans' liberties. As furious German officials demand changes in Washington, it is Americans themselves who may have the most to gain.

Related Web Columns:

Liberty Isn't Privacy, June 25, 2013


1. Frankfurter Allgemaine, Amerika Hat Das Handy der Kanzlerin Abgehört, October 23, 2013

2. Bild, Obama Wollte Alles über Merkel Wissen, October 27, 2013

3. The Guardian, NSA Denies Discussing Merkel Phone Surveillance With Obama, October 27, 2013

4. White House OKd Spying on Allies, U.S. Intelligence Officials Say, October 28, 2013

5. Sydney Morning Herald, NSA Uproar Sends German Spy Chiefs to Washington, October 27, 2013

6. Washington Post, Brazil’s President Condemns NSA Spying, September 24, 2013

7. Zeit Online, Merkel Verteidigt Abhören von Telefonaten, July 10, 2013

8. New York Times, The Drone That Killed My Grandson, July 27, 2013

9. Bruce, Gary, The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi, July 9th 2010

10. National Security Agency, NSA 60th Anniversary, 2012

11. Reuters, Protesters March in Washington Against NSA Spying, October 26, 2013