The former East Germany’s Stasi used similar justifications as the U.S. for total surveillance.If recent revelations have led Americans to question how the United States defines freedom, Germans are questioning how the United States defines friendship. Turmoil surrounding PRISM’s overseas snooping has pushed the protection of privacy to the front of Germany’s agenda, imperiling German-U.S. relations. The American National Security Agency has been able to access data clouds in Europe for the last five years, which is news to most European citizens, although the European Parliament has known since 2011. In Germany, outrage is boiling as many begin to reassess the German-American relationship.
Since the end of World War II, Germany and the United States have enjoyed a relative closeness and codependency and are often described as a partnership, marriage, or friendship. But over the last decade, political rifts over the global economy, the war in Iraq, and America’s civil rights violations have caused this transatlantic love to fade. PRISM’s direct invasion of Europeans’ privacy provides further cleavage between the two Western superpowers.
German government officials, political parties, and news sources have been openly critical of the Obama administration, demanding information and justification. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger linked the security issue to one of democracy’s fundamental predicaments, explaining that “the more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is.” She called on Washington to be completely transparent about its motivations for such excessive surveillance in order to resolve the conflict.
During President Obama’s visit to Berlin on June 19, Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the president for specifics on the NSA’s role in Europe. While Obama’s outline of the NSA’s restricted domain and assertions about its role in terrorism prevention in Germany seemed to reassure Merkel, he’ll have to do much more to win over the rest of the country.
One reason that many Germans aren’t taking the bait is that former East Germans, including Chancellor Merkel herself, liken the invasiveness of PRISM’s techniques to Stasi infiltration. The all-too-recent horror of the German Democratic Republic’s repression hovers in German minds, giving a particularly sinister gleam to the NSA’s operations. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany justified Stasi actions as efforts to preserve state security, a frighteningly similar goal, when taken at face-value, to that of our own security agency. European Parliament member Mark Ferber reported that he “thought this era had ended when the DDR fell.”
With no comparable national experience in the popular American imagination, it seems that the U.S. government is less constrained to value privacy in the same way. The disparity is even embedded in law—the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly provide protection of citizens’ privacy, whereas Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects Germans’ lives, homes, and correspondence from interference by public authorities. The threat that PRISM poses to Germany’s guarantee of privacy protection is frightening to Germans on a deep level that perhaps even the most concerned Americans can’t fully comprehend.
Although Merkel and Obama used the term “friendship” liberally throughout their joint press conference, the term may no longer describe a unity of ideals with regard to human rights. “Is [Obama] a friend?” asks Jakob Augstein at Spiegel Online, observing that “revelations about his government’s vast spying program call that assumption into doubt.”
It is obvious that the German people will not readily sacrifice the privacy that they fought to have, and the United States can either take a page from the German book or retain its current security agenda. But even if the latter becomes agreeable to the American people, NSA persistence overseas may discolor the German-American friendship with pigments of mistrust and reluctance.
Emma Lo is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.