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Opinion: Merkel’s cellphone was a wake-up call

Marcel Fürstenau / ccOctober 23, 2014

Exactly one year ago it was revealed that the NSA had tapped the German chancellor’s cellphone. The government is now finally starting to address the spying issue - but Marcel Fürstenau believes more should be done.

USA Fahne Brandenburger Tor Berlin
Image: Adam Berry/Getty Images

At the time, in the summer of 2013, it was all about denials and playing down the issue. The Chancellery's then chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, rejected accusations that Germans had also been involved in the National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal. Pofalla flatly denied charges that the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) had illegally passed on information about German citizens to its American colleagues. Angela Merkel's confidante declared that data protection laws were adhered to "100 percent." Rather ingenuously, he even requested written assurances that both US and British spies had always respected German law. That should – would have to – be enough to calm the German public, in the middle of an election campaign.

The feigned naivety that followed the revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden fitted perfectly with the placatory remarks by the then interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich. He made a special trip to Washington to obtain confirmation that the NSA had – supposedly – acted correctly. A year ago, it looked as if the NSA scandal would only be followed up by small-minded data protection watchdogs and conspiracy theorists. Merkel and her loyal followers certainly succeeded in keeping the topic out of the election campaign.

Friends do spy on each other

The bombshell only dropped a month after their victory in the September election. Merkel's cellphone had also been targeted by the NSA. This is in fact a trifle when set alongside millions of instances of data collection from and about ordinary, upstanding German citizens; however, it suddenly became a scandal of the first degree. 'Friends don't spy on each other,' Merkel said. These now-famous words were, then as now, essentially right. Yet it is also still true twelve months later that they have a false ring about them. False, as in not honest – because constitutional rights apply to everyone, equally. Eavesdropping on my cellphone would be just as scandalous as invading the Chancellor's privacy.

Symbolbild Angela Merkel Barack Obama NSA Affäre
It was one year ago when it emerged the United States had tapped chancellor Merkel's cellphoneImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But what a good thing that, in its all-encompassing surveillance mania, the US had no scruples, even when it came to spying on the most powerful woman in the world. At least since then German politics has been less lily-livered in its reactions: at times it has even been resolute. This is true above all of the opposition, which does, admittedly, have it easier as far as this delicate topic is concerned. It is because of the dogged insistence of the Greens and the Left Party that, since the spring, a parliamentary committee of enquiry has been looking into the machinations of the NSA and the BND.

An eastwards view has left blind spots

Repeated attempts by the Chancellery to thwart the delegates by redacting files or refusing to supply them are more than simply exasperating. They repeatedly call into question the credibility of the government's policy. Now, however, we are seeing the first signs of it softening its restrictive stance. Expelling the US embassy employee who coordinated the NSA's spying activities in Berlin has also sent an important signal. Hopefully, this signal will prove more than just a symbolic one – because the Americans' refusal, despite everything, to sign a 'no spy' agreement demonstrates just how unimpressed they are.

So there is good reason to assume that the US is continuing its spying activities essentially without change – even against friendly states such as Germany. The German government appears to have come to terms with this. It is therefore a good sign that the interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has announced that the intelligence services should have a "360-degree view" where counterespionage is concerned. By this he means that they must not only look critically eastwards but also towards the west. Germany has always been particularly mistrustful of Russian and Chinese secret services – and with good reason. It remains to be seen what will appear under the heading "NSA" in next year's intelligence agency report. This year there was almost nothing – despite there being more than enough to write about.