Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

The firestorm of controversy set off by Edward Snowden several months ago over the surveillance operations of the National Security Agency (NSA) re-erupted last week when media sources in Germany and France reported intrusive NSA surveillance against America’s closest European allies.

Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, reported pervasive NSA surveillance operations against French citizens and diplomats while Der Spiegl, a German publication, claimed that the NSA had been monitoring Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone communications for some time.

These allegations shook the trans-Atlantic diplomatic community. Chancellor Merkel, known to be an avid user of her mobile phone, called the White House to express her anger. President Obama assured her that the United States is not spying and will not spy on her, without explicitly acknowledging any possibly related events that occurred in the past.

This is not the first time a world leader has expressed anger at the NSA’s surveillance operations. Last month, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil postponed a state visit to Washington after discovering that the NSA had spied on her, her advisors and state-owned oil enterprise Petrobras.

While the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and countries like Brazil and Russia caused by Snowden’s revelations are serious, the latest reports of the NSA operations in Europe are eroding trust between decades-old allies. Chancellor Merkel and French President François Hollande both called NSA actions “unacceptable” and “out of control.”

Meeting face-to-face at a European Union (E.U.) summit in Brussels last week, the two leaders demanded talks with the U.S. over rules of intelligence gathering and security service behavior. Lower level officials from both Germany and France were planning to visit Washington this week to discuss the issue with American counterparts. Merkel and Hollande demanded action from the U.S. on reining in its surveillance programs by the end of the year. According to various media reports, Chancellor Merkel is just one of 35 world leaders whose lines of communication had been compromised by NSA operations.

Other leaders at the E.U. summit supported taking action at a supra-national level to combat “out of control” spying, though it was unclear what those actions would entail. In the United Nations, German and Brazilian diplomats are also working to draft a resolution calling for rights of Internet privacy. Though non-binding and general in nature, the resolution is targeted towards the United States.

Great Britain has been caught awkwardly in the crossfire between the United States and the rest of the E.U. in the controversy over surveillance programs. Though technically a member of the European Union, Great Britain participates in an intelligence-sharing group between of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These five nations have agreed not to spy on each other in exchange for the open flow of intelligence information. In addition, Great Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is also alleged to participate in a pervasive surveillance program.

The allegation of NSA spying hits especially close to home for Germany. For several decades, Big Brother-style monitoring of German citizens was the norm under the Nazi regime and later, the East German Stasi. Chancellor Merkel is herself a native of East Germany.

This diplomatic rift between the U.S. and its European allies comes just as negotiations have begun on a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. The breakdown of trust between the two sides is anticipated to have an impact on the pace and terms of those talks.

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