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US eavesdropping: What's all the noise about?

The German government is outraged. But on the other side of the Atlantic, allegations that the NSA eavesdropped on the German chancellor have hardly caused a ripple. Some have even said Germany should stop sulking.

Americans might have been happy to listen in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's telephone calls, but in the US, the eavesdropping of her mobile phone hasn't exactly been a hotly-debated topic.

It did manage to slip into the shows of certain high-level media outlets. CNN, for example, cited the chancellor's expression of disappointment at the EU summit. "Spying between friends - that just isn't right," she said.

As the telephone spying allegations began gaining steam, they did warrant clarification from US President Barack Obama. "The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications" of the chancellor, the president reassured Merkel on Wednesday, said White House spokesperson Jay Carney.

That could be an outright lie, according to other political voices in Washignton. And yet still, there's no uproar in the nation's capital. It's much ado about nothing, says Pete Hoekstra, who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in US Congress between 2004 and 2007.

"I think that's possible," he told DW with regard to the eavesdropping of Merkel's mobile phone. "I think that the understanding in the intelligence world is that the French, the Germans, the Israelis, the Americans - we are all good friends," said the former Republican Congressman of 18 years. "There are maybe times where we do intelligence operations against each other. That's very, very well understood."

As such, he cannot understand the commotion surrounding the latest revelation from the files of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. "I think it's naive thinking. I think the German government would very much know that there might be some espionage going on against them by their friends," he said.

Some allies, he says, spy on the US - even European allies. It's an unwritten rule, one that everyone knows, he adds. Germany's secret service agencies - and the German parliamentarians who work with them - would not have been surprised and the ensuing outcry in Berlin was largely scripted, he says.

"I think the only surprise that they may have is - if this actually did occur - that the German intelligence community did not have appropriate countermeasures in place to stop this."

Presidential nod

Whether or not the acts of spying actually occurred has not yet been confirmed. But the expert cannot imagine that President Obama wouldn't have known of them.

"The President establishes the rules under which every intelligence organisation operates. The NSA - and none of the US-intelligence organizations - have the opportunity or the right to operate outside of the boundaries that the president of the US has established," he said.

An African-American man wearing a black tuxedo smiles off-camera. Photo: Antje Passenheim

Much ado about little, says Raymond Tanter

But what of a president who feigns ignorance in order to dodge political bullets? Hardly the case, says Raymond Tanter, an intelligence expert and former National Security Council staff member under President Ronald Reagan.

"Anytime foreigners are involved, there is less control at the White House. Domestic eavesdropping is tightly controlled by courts, the Congress and the White House," he told DW.

It's therefore very possible that the US listened in on Chancellor Merkel's phone calls, he says, adding that the NSA, which he compares to a vacuum cleaner, is in a position to do so.

"I think President Obama must have known that such activities were happening," Tanter said, adding, however, that he doubted that it had happened under his watch.

American and German intelligence operations work well together, he says, so well, in fact, that he believes the German intelligence service knew more about what their US counterparts were up to than politicians on both sides were aware of.

Pity party?

In any case, recent allegations are no grounds for a long-term crisis of confidence, says Mike Haltzel at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. Calls by European Parliament President Martin Schulz to terminate free-trade talks between the EU and US as well as similar demands made by German politicians, Haltzel says, are completely unnecessary.

A middle-aged man smiles off-camera in a sunny, outdoor setting. Photo: Antje Passenheim

Mike Haltzel: Germany's secret service was probably aware of the eavesdropping

"This reaction is not only hypocritical. It's so self-defeating and it will hurt Germany, the EU, every bit as much as it would hurt the US and it makes no sense to me whatsoever," said the former high-ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations in the US Senate. Resorting to sulking or even putting an end to negotiations, he says, would hit Europe harder than the US.

"Economists estimate that a comprehensive TTIP [free-trade agreement] would increase GDP in the EU by half a percent a year, and in the US by about four-tenths of a percent a year," he told DW. "That's a huge sum of money - which also translates into tens of thousands jobs on both sides of the Atlantic." Were the eavesdropping to be confirmed, he added, the US would owe the German government an explanation and its reassurance that it would not happen again.

In the US media on Friday, the German chancellor dropped even lower down the agenda. Just as it had before, the controversial Affordable Care Act, popularly known as "Obamacare," took center stage. While both CNN and The Wall Street Journal focused on Merkel's admonitions, the Washington Post looked instead toward the potential fallout should it emerge that the US government eavesdropped on the phones of leaders in China or Iran.

Sebastian Rotella of the investigative research network Pro Publica says there is an interest - even if, admittedly, it's limited this time and won't cause Americans to take to the streets as before.

Protestors carry posters reading NSA and speakin of liberty from surveillance. Photo: Richard B. Levine

Americans protesting the NSA are far more concerned with their own phones being tapped

"There is a reaction. There is concern," he told DW. "At the same time, there's also the sense that this is not necessarily that new. I mean, people always had a sense that the intelligence community had very sophisticated, high-tech-measures." What's new, he added, were the details and names involved.

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