Obama Administration's Indifference on NSA Surveillance Fuels Fury in Europe

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 2 2013 4:08 PM

Obama Administration's Indifference on NSA Surveillance Fuels Fury in Europe

171022074
Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit in front of the Brandenburg Gate

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

For almost a month, revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs have made headlines across the world. But the international legal and political backlash is only just beginning.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

In June, details about the NSA’s efforts to spy on foreigners’ communications sparked outrage in Europe, prompting calls for renewed efforts to strengthen data protections regulations. Now, the rhetoric is being replaced with action.

Advertisement

Following the exposure of the NSA’s Internet snooping system PRISM, the vice president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, squared up to Attorney General Eric Holder over the scope of the program. Further information published by the Guardian on Sunday revealed that the NSA is not only monitoring foreigners for intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism purposes, but it is also bugging diplomatic missions used by EU officials. This has prompted France to threaten to halt European trade talks unless the United States “immediately” stops its surveillance of allies, potentially jeopardizing a free-trade agreement worth billions of dollars every year.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have tried to play down the spying, insisting that bugging allies is normal behavior conducted by all intelligence agencies. But the administration’s dismissive remarks appear to have only provoked further anger among some European leaders, who seem genuinely shocked and aghast at the scope of the NSA’s activities. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, described the surveillance as “comparable to measures taken in the past by the KGB, by the secret service of the Soviet Union."

In Germany, a country with a touchy relationship with privacy due to the brutal legacy of East Germany’s Stasi secret police, revelations about the NSA explicitly targeting Germans’ communications for mass surveillance have incensed both the public and political class alike. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “bugging friends is unacceptable" and added that “we are no longer in the cold war.” German newspaper Der Spiegel reported Sunday that federal prosecutors in the country are investigating the NSA’s spying and that criminal complaints will likely be issued in relation to the scandal.

Elsewhere, government officials in Luxemburg, Austria, Turkey, and Japan have demanded answers from the Obama administration about the NSA’s spying efforts. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday when asked about the U.S. bugging diplomatic missions that international law means “diplomatic activities should be protected.” Indeed, the 1961 Vienna convention on diplomatic relations specifically states that "the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable." But that does not appear to have stopped the NSA, which reportedly deemed 38 embassies and missions “targets” for covert communications surveillance.

The classified documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden continue to illustrate how the agency has spread its surveillance tentacles around the world. It is possible, however, that the forced transparency Snowden has brought about with his leaks may lead to a culture-shift in the NSA’s activities. Public opinion on the NSA’s spying is divided in the United States. But international legal cases and mushrooming diplomatic fallouts in Europe and elsewhere could make the difference—reining in aggressive surveillance programs that appear to have spiralled to alarming proportions under cover of total secrecy.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 3:59 PM The Trailer for Taken 3 Is Here, and Guess Who’s on His Phone Again
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.