Europe outraged but conflicted over NSA surveillance
Indignation was sharp and predictable across Europe – a continent where privacy is revered. Yet anger over revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance was tempered by an indisputable fact: Europe wants the information that American intelligence provides.
That dilemma was clear Tuesday, only days after leaks about two National Security Agency programs that purportedly target foreign messages – including private e-mails, voice and other data transmissions – sent through U.S. Internet providers.
The European Union’s top justice official, Viviane Reding, said she would demand that the United States afford EU citizens the same rights as Americans when it comes to data protection. Hannes Swoboda, a Socialist leader in the European Parliament, said the purported surveillance showed that the U.S. “is just doing what it wants.”At the same time, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich confirmed that his government regularly receives tips from the United States on Islamic extremists – and he doesn’t expect the Americans to tell him where they got the information.
“We get very good and reliable information from our American friends and partners that has played an important role in the past in preventing attacks in Germany,” Mr. Friedrich told reporters in Berlin. “The Americans don’t tell us, and we also don’t tell our partners … where this information comes from. That’s the business of the respective agency.”
The conflict in Europe between the right to privacy and a government’s obligation to protect its citizenry is similar to the debate in the United States over the limits of intelligence activities in a free society.
President Barack Obama alluded to the conflict Friday when he told reporters in California: “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience.”
But the dilemma is even sharper in Europe, which hosted major NSA monitoring sites during the Cold War.
Much of the continent still has bitter and recent memories of massive surveillance by Communist authorities, who maintained that tapping phones, opening mail and bugging homes was necessary to guard against Western spies and political dissidents.
Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and other major countries maintain their own spy systems, including electronic eavesdropping. But European laws generally limit the scope to a much greater degree, preventing blanket surveillance of the kind allegedly carried out by the National Security Agency.
But Key Pousttchi, a former German army officer and communications expert at the University of Augsburg, likened the furor over NSA to demands from Europe that the U.S. close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Europeans were quick to criticize the United States, but when it came to taking back the inmates they said no,” Pousttchi said. “The fact is that governments want all the information that Apple, Google and Facebook collect on us. Let the Americans do the dirty work.”
Nevertheless, European governments cannot ignore public outrage over a foreign power possibly spying on Europe’s citizens. Nor can they turn a blind eye to demands by privacy advocates for curbs on a U.S. surveillance program that exploits personal communications.
Sophie in’t Veld, a liberal lawmaker in the European Parliament lawmaker, said it was unacceptable that “a foreign nation has unlimited access to every intimate detail” of the lives of 500 million EU citizens.
Johannes Caspar, a privacy commissioner for the German state of Hamburg, accused the United States of creating a system that allows “unwarranted, permanent and total observation” – words that evoke memories of life under Communist East Germany’s secret police.
“Fundamental questions of data protection between Europe and the United States now need to be redefined,” Caspar said.
His words were echoed by Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who said Europe wants “transparency and clarity from the U.S. administration itself” about the scope of U.S. surveillance.
How far Europe is prepared to stand up to the United States remains unclear.
The furor over the latest NSA revelations mirrors a vigorous but short-lived debate in Europe following publication of a report a dozen years ago about a worldwide, U.S.-led electronic surveillance program known as ECHELON.
It was a global network of communications monitoring sites established during the Cold War by the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to provide those governments with intelligence, some of which was shared with other Western allies.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, critics questioned whether the monitoring system was still necessary. A report published by the European Parliament in July 2001 suggested that the system was being used for industrial espionage, giving the Americans and others an unfair trade advantage.
Publication of the report generated outrage in Europe. But much of it vanished two months later when al-Qaeda launched its 9-11 attacks in the United States.
Instead of curbing U.S. intelligence, some European politicians pushed for their own national intelligence agencies to receive similar powers to the Americans to fight terrorism.
Following the latest revelations, a German government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel would raise the issue of American surveillance when she meets Mr. Obama in Berlin next week.
Senior German officials, however, suggested they were not looking to pick a fight with the Americans over the issue. “We will do everything we can to ensure the co-operation with American intelligence services,” said Friedrich, the interior minister.
The author of the 2001 ECHELON report said that while revelations about the latest NSA programs were troubling, he believed a concerted European push to stop such activities was unlikely.
“I’m a little bit surprised that everyone is getting upset about the Americans when almost everyone else is doing it, too,” Georg Schmid told The Associated Press. “The Americans are just better at it than everybody else.”