Remember "Reach out and touch someone"? Well, President Obama did reach out and touch someone. The only problem is, the person he touched just happened to be Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. And she wasn't happy about it.
When she learned from Der Spiegel that the National Security Agency had been tapping her personal cellphone, Merkel was so outraged she immediately called President Obama and told him to knock it off. She's probably even more upset now, since it's been reported that we actually started tapping her private phone in 2002, three years before she became chancellor, and that spying operations are run in Berlin from the rooftop of the American Embassy, less than 800 yards from the Chancellery, and that President Obama was told about the practice in 2010 and did nothing to stop it.
Official White House response to Germany has been clumsy, at best. Press Secretary Jay Carney will only say we are not spying on Merkel's phone today and will not in the future. He refuses to comment on whether we ever did so in the past, which means we did. The White House also denies that President Obama was aware of the NSA's tapping Merkel's personal phone until last summer. Which only raises more serious questions: If the president didn't know, why not? Did President Obama really stand alongside Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate in June without knowing we were tapping her phone? Can the director of the NSA decide to tap an important ally's personal phone without informing the president? Who's in charge of our intelligence operations, anyway?
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Germany, which sent a high-level delegation to Washington this week to protest the phone espionage, is only one of 35 countries we're reportedly spying on. In September, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil canceled her planned visit to the United States because NSA was listening in on members of her government. Last week, President Hollande of France summoned the U.S. ambassador to France Charles Rivkin to Elysee Palace for an official dressing-down. Spain claims that NSA monitored 60.5 million phone calls made by Spanish citizens in the month of December 2012 alone. And the Italian magazine Panorama reports that NSA spied on the future Pope Francis before, during and after the conclave where he was elected to succeed Benedict XVI. Is nobody out of bounds for NSA?
Revelation of NSA's massive spying operations on friendly nations is the latest nugget mined from documents released by Edward Snowden, which began with news that NSA was monitoring every phone call made and every email sent by American citizens. Compounded by news this week that the NSA, without their knowledge or consent, had tapped into the fiber-optic cables used by Yahoo and Google and has been collecting the vast amounts of information they transmit every minute.
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Such wholesale eavesdropping has made some Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, nervous. But Republicans appear to have no problem with it. Maybe because it's so "Bushian." House Intelligence Chairman Peter King went so far as to advise: "I think the president should stop apologizing, stop being defensive." Meanwhile, intelligence officials defend their expanded operations by sticking to talking points. According to an internal NSA memo obtained by Al-Jazeera, entitled "Sound Bites That Resonate," USA super spies are trained to parrot: "I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent."
Unfortunately, that rubric – that September 11 justifies every invasion of privacy, from our phone calls to Angela Merkel's – resonates with most Americans. But it's just plain wrong, especially when it comes to friends and allies. Sure, we spy on other nations and they spy on us. But, among friends, there should still be some parameters. Monitoring terrorist activity in France or Germany is one thing. But tapping the personal, private cellphone of a friendly world leader is totally different – and puts that leader in a tough political position at home. And, of course, it's fair to ask, after 11 years, how much information about terrorist activity did we learn from listening in on Angela Merkel's personal phone calls?
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Imagine what our reaction would be if we learned that Israel, France or Germany were listening in on President Obama's personal BlackBerry. We'd be outraged. No matter who the president was, Republican or Democrat, we'd be outraged. And that's the real test. If we wouldn't tolerate spying on our own president, we shouldn't be spying on other world leaders, either.