A US delegation has been sent across the pond to appease NSA-plagued Europeans. But the rather tepid discussion in the US shows that confidence-building measures can easily hit trans-Atlantic walls.
James Lewis is a cyber guru. He is an old hand in the intelligence and information security business, having worked for several different US ministries and UN working groups. He was also Barack Obama's cyber security advisor.
But right now, he is at a loss. "We have to find a solution, we have to find a vehicle," says Lewis, who is now director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington.
At a panel discussion Lewis pondered ways to restore trust across the Atlantic, which he said are essential. But it can't be at the expense of national security, he stressed.
"I don't want to say that we should not take European sentiment, German sentiment very seriously. This is a political issue."
"The cardinal rule in intelligence is: don't get caught. Now that we've been caught, we need to do things to rebuild trust. We need to put the partnership on a different track that re-emphasize the shared values we have," he said.
But that is precisely the crux of the matter, according to Heather Conley, head of the CSIS Europe Program. "Transatlantically we've always had a difference of opinion on privacy. Americans are willing for security to be more open to different techniques against privacy. Europe, because of its history, is unwilling," she believes.
Much ado about nothing?
Recent events seem to underline that view. News that the NSA had once again been given carte blanche to tap private phone lines from the US Supreme Court barely raised an eyebrow in the US, let alone prompt angry headlines.
The judges rejected a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had tried to limit the NSA's wiretapping practices. The Supreme Court was tasked with considering a verdict by the Foreign Intelligence Security Court (FISC) that had given permission to release the phone details of millions of customers of a US network provider. But the Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit without giving a reason.
Lewis fails to see why people should be up in arms about it. "Probably more than 80 percent of the American public approve of these programs," he says, adding that most Americans understand how they operate and what the trade-offs are.
But he admits that "we have not done a good job explaining to the rest of the world what these trade-offs are."
Lewis says that that must now happen, but without interfering with intelligence operations. "It will not be renouncing intelligence collection. Intelligence collection is a function that all states perform," he emphasizes.
Berlin and Washington are in the process of negotiating a new intelligence agreement, which is expected to be in the bag by Christmas. Few details have emerged so far, but German Social Democrat Niels Annen hopes that the US will renounce its anti-terrorism laws from 2001.
"I think we'd have a different kind of discussion, also with our trans-Atlantic partners, on the subject of terrorism if this war against terror was officially ended and, with it, some of the legal interpretations that, time and again, cause ructions," Annen said during a visit to Washington.
After the 9/11 attacks the US Congress approved anti-terrorism legislation, known as the Patriot Act, that vastly extended the intelligence services' remit. It also encroached on civil rights with the aim of maintaining national security.
The Patriot Act allowed telephone conversations and e-mail correspondence to be accessed, companies and libraries to be put under surveillance and terror suspects to be detained without trial.
"My hope is that lawmakers here [in the US] are also concerned about the security apparatus that has grown tremendously since 9/11," Annen says, pointing out that recent talks in Washington were slowly heading in that direction.
"The US administration gave me the impression that they were taking the discussion in Germany seriously. That it's not dominating the headlines here, shouldn't surprise us really."