Spying on Close Friends

A closer look at a damaging way to gather intelligence

We were talking several times over the past few months about the U.S. government’s spying on the German leaders and on how most Americans associate their country with freedom. Commissioner Sorenson visited our sister county, St. Wendel in the Saarland (a German state in southwest Germany) in 2006. Because of this relationship Sorenson has some familiarity with Germans and their public policy. The German side of this relationship has also responded: our German local government counterpart visited Lane County in 2009. President Obama, who held a rally in Berlin in 2008 while campaigning for the presidency, was, in 2008 and 2009 very popular in Germany, both among leaders and the German people.

We decided that we have unique perspectives on this national relationship. So, we collaborated on this short article about spying on the American people and spying by the U.S. government on Germany’s leaders.

The American Side

From the perspective of Americans, the revelations of spying on Americans by the U.S. government have been disturbing.

News outlets (such as reported on thewire.com or Spiegelonline.de German Internetpage) say that the American spy agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), doesn’t know what documents were on the hard disks on the computer which been taken by the former employee of an NSA contractor, Edward Snowden.

More recently in the U.S., two big court cases had alternative rulings on the NSA spying program. One ruling was that the spying was legal. The other ruling was that it violated the rights of Americans given to Americans by their constitution. U.S District Court Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that the program, which collects virtually all Americans’ phone records, represents the U.S. government’s “counter-punch” to eliminate the al-Qaeda terrorist network and does not violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, according to the Washington Post.

Even Americans and big American corporations are spied upon by the NSA. The NSA says the spying is justified to avert terrorist attacks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, asked in a letter on January 2014 to the agency whether NSA has or is “spying” on members of Congress and other elected American officials. Congress has the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons,” said the agency in a statement obtained by CNN.

Obama said in his speech Jan. 17 that intelligence has helped to secure the country throughout American history. He said America still needs intelligence to secure our country and to prevent terrorist attacks or cyber threats. In the future there should be some changes to protect more the privacy from the American people.

The president said, “The United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks. The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well. We will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies. Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments — as opposed to ordinary citizens — around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners“.

Obama said on March 26 that he wants to end the NSA Bulk Data Collection Program. He urged Congress to pass reforms that would stop unnecessary data collection. He said, “We have got to win back the trust not just of governments, but, more importantly, of ordinary citizens. There is a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical of the U.S. intelligence services.“

A few days later, Sen. Ron Wyden speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press said: “Obama should end the practice right away“ rather than wait for Congress pass legislation. He added, “I believe strongly we ought to ban all dragnet surveillance on law-abiding Americans, not just phone records but also medical records, purchases and others.“

The German Side

The German people are also talking about the spying done by America’s NSA.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden met The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary film maker Laura Poitras. A few days later, The Guardian published its first exclusive story about spying by the NSA.

In about July 2013, press accounts began coming out that German citizens were being spied on by the NSA. Because of all of the spying going on in the world now, Germans were not surprised anymore that there is spying and surveillance. However, a poll of Germans by German media revealed that 61 percent of German citizens were surprised about the U.S. government spying activities and 62 percent of German citizens were surprised to learn that German citizens had become the target of U.S. spying.

In addition to spying on German citizens, it became clear — from the vantage point of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin — that the NSA spied on the elected German leaders’ telephones, including the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel is the head of state for Germany and her counterpart is the Barack Obama.

Newspapers such as the Washington Post and Huffington Post say that the NSA has monitored Merkel’s phone since 2002 even before she rose to her country’s chief executive position. At this time she was only an opposition leader. No one has said whether this spying has been evaluated or even if these conversations were recorded. The NSA has chosen not to give information about this topic to the public.

Merkel, after learning about this, said on Oct. 24, 2013 on the German news, “Spying among friends is never acceptable.”

After the incident became public, Obama apologized to Merkel. At the meeting with Merkel, the U.S. president said that the NSA might have monitored Merkel’s phone. He also said that if he had known about it he would have stopped it right away.

Because of the spying affair, the confidence in Obama and the U.S. has declined in Germany. At the beginning of the tenure of Obama, 78 percent of the Germans said that the U.S. was a country they could trust. Now only 49 percent shares that perspective.

But what could be the reason why the U.S spied on Germany?

One reason could be that the German government did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. This raised the question of whether Gerhard Schroeder, former chancellor of Germany, could be trusted. In addition to its non-military industrial might, Germany is the third largest exporter of weapons in the world behind the U.S. and Russia. American military intelligence was worried about the good friendship between Schroeder and the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Besides the military reasons for spying, another reason could be non-military industrial spying. Germany’s middle class has enjoyed success and they have industrial know-how. Germany’s middle class provides the workers with world dominant technological development. Because of this prominence, Germany is currently the third largest exporter, behind only China and the U.S.

German exports more than it imports from other countries, thus — unlike the U.S. — Germany has a net export surplus. Some experts believe that the technological know how of the German economy is the reason that Germany’s companies are also being spied on. It’s possible that industrial espionage would help America’s companies. The German government has said that industrial spying has already caused damage to German companies, to the extent of 50 billion euros (or about $68.5 billion). That’s the kind of money that gets attention.

Whether at home or aboard, we think that spying on friends isn’t a good idea.