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Strained ties

Michael KniggeDecember 27, 2013

One year ago, most people on either side of Atlantic had scant or no knowledge of the NSA and its activities. Edward Snowden’s revelations changed all that and rocked one of the pillars of transatlantic relations.

Schlagzeile des Jahres: Yes, we scan!
Image: picture-alliance/zumapress

When the Guardian started reporting on the largest disclosure of secret NSA files in the history of the agency in June, it was only a question of time before the information spill reached America's allies overseas. That's because the NSA's prime duty is to monitor and collect global signals intelligence. The agency is by law prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance on Americans except under special circumstances.

In the Guardian's first story on how the NSA was collecting the metadata of phone calls from Verizon, a major US carrier, it was clear that data of European citizens would be involved, since the NSA's secret court order included all calls made from and to the US.

But it was the second scoop on the NSA's PRISM program that really blew the story wide open. It revealed that the agency was siphoning off personal data like email, chats and photos from the world's biggest Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo.

Everyone affected

This revelation did not simply show that everyone using these services was affected by NSA surveillance. It also made it impossible to ignore politically on both sides of the Atlantic. But official reactions in the US were characterized by a strong focus on the leaker Edward Snowden and the alleged damage by his revelations to US national security. European officials meanwhile tried to downplay the relevance of the Snowden disclosures culminating in Chancellor Merkel's chief of staff stating in August that the so-called NSA scandal was now over.

Two months and a slew of major disclosures later, news broke that the chancellor's personal mobile phone had been monitored by the NSA.

"I think that alone would not have caused that much damage," says Jeremi Suri, a transatlantic relations expert at the University of Texas. "But that revelation in the context of all the other revelations from the documents that Edward Snowden released symbolized for many that the United States saw almost no limits on what it could do. If we would tap into the cell phone of the German leader, one of our closest allies, many people are asking, is there anything we wouldn't do. Are we willing do anything to support our interest?"

Bundeskanzlerin Merkel NSA Überwachung Obama Symbolbild Lädiertes Bündnis
Surveillance of Merkel's phone caused public outrageImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Turning point

The surveillance of Merkel's phone was a game changer in Europe as well as the US. It forced both the White House and Congress to acknowledge that the practices of US intelligence needed closer inspection. It also drove Chancellor Merkel, Europe's most important leader, to publicly take a tougher stance vis-à-vis Washington. Most importantly, it undermined one of the central pillars of the transatlantic relations: trust.

"I think the damage is actually quite significant," notes Suri. "One of the most significant accomplishments of the United States after World War II was to build with its European partners a set of relationships were there was presumed trust and a believe that the US was acting in their interest."

Snowden's revelations, argues Suri, have eroded the "basis of that relationship and a younger generation of Europeans that are coming of age not necessarily believing that the US is really their partner, but instead perceiving the United States as a big bully with technology using its technology to do whatever it wants. And that's a perception, once held, that's very difficult to eradicate."

Revamped relationship

Overcoming the transatlantic rift will require to rebuild trust and confidence between both partners again.

A success in the current US-EU trade negotiations (TTIP) would be the best symbol of restored trust, argues Klaus Larres, a transatlantic relations scholar at the University of North Carolina: "If the EU and the US can really get their act together and perhaps include some privacy laws into these trade negotiations than that would really demonstrate that transatlantic relations haven't been damaged for good."

His colleague Suri is not convinced that this will suffice. The US intelligence services need to become more transparent, he says, so Americans and people around the world know what they are doing. "This is supposed to be an open society and we have in the last 15 years moved away from openness on many of these issues. We need to build credibility and trust by being open not just by apologizing and by saying we won't do this again."

USA Deutschland Lädiertes Bündnis
NSA surveillance shook the transatlantic partnershipImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Whether that will happen is all but certain. Since taking office Obama has made a U-turn from his very critical stance on US intelligence activities.

"You can say that before he became president he was not quite aware of the extent and in his view usefulness of these activities," says Larres. "Once he became president he was ‘enlightened' by his intelligence services and bought into it. You could say the same about the whole drone warfare."