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Nice gesture

Ben KnightNovember 26, 2013

Two US politicians visited Berlin recently in an attempt to repair the damage caused by Snowden's revelations on the extent of NSA surveillance. But there was little in the way of cooperation with the German parliament.

Der stellvertretende Vorsitzende des Parlamentarischen Kontrollgremiums, Unions-Fraktionsgeschäftsführer Michael Grosse-Brömer (CDU, l-r) begrüßt am 25.11.2013 in Berlin US-Senator Christopher Murphy und den Kongressabgeordneten Gregory Meeks zu einem Gespräch. Thema war die NSA-Ausspähaffäre. Foto: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa pixel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

They were in Berlin, it soon became clear, as diplomats rather than parliamentarians. The US delegation that visited the German capital on Monday (25.11.2013) consisted of two Democratic members of the US Congress - Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York - here to show that they "understand the depth of the hurt that has been done," as Murphy put it.

But that was not all. "We hope, between actions of the Congress and bilateral actions between the Obama administration and the new government here, that we can set a new path forward," Murphy offered in the midst of a string of meetings with German politicians from Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and several counterparts in the Bundestag too.

Then, at a panel discussion that rounded off the day's meetings, Murphy banged a familiar drum - the importance of German-US ties. "A crisis should not represent an opportunity, but that is the reality," he said, while Meeks underlined how fondly President Barack Obama remembered his triumphant trip to Berlin as senator in 2008.

US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit leave the stage after delivering speeches in front of the Brandenburg Gate on June 19, 2013 in Berlin. Barack Obama walks in John F. Kennedy's footsteps on his first visit to Berlin as US president, but encounter a more powerful and sceptical Germany in talks on trade and secret surveillance practices. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
The US-German relationship is the important thing, said the lawmakersImage: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Holding the government line

Murphy and Meeks' main intention appeared to be to defend the line taken by the US government - though German concerns were valid, mass surveillance and data collection was being carried out by "good people" at the National Security Agency ("They are not doing surveillance for surveillance's sake," he insisted) and that they were "true believers" in the transatlantic relationship. This last point was proved by what they called a "reinvestment" in that alliance through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States - an agreement that was thrown into crisis by the revelations unveiled by Edward Snowden.

Denying reports that meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck had been refused, Murphy said last week that the trip was all about "dialogue between parliaments."

But this mooted cooperation did not apparently extend to cooperation on the investigation of the NSA's activities currently being planned by the German parliament, the Bundestag. In answer to DW's question whether Snowden would be allowed to testify in Congress, given that many German parliamentarians want him to testify in the Bundestag, Murphy hardened.

Edward Snowden Foto: Irina Oho/dpa (Nur zur redaktionellen Verwendung bei Nennung der Quelle)
Edward Snowden would not be welcome in CongressImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Despite welcoming an opportunity to uncover and possibly rein in the NSA's excesses, Snowden himself remained a persona non grata in Washington. "I will not be inviting Snowden to testify to my subcommittee for foreign affairs," said Murphy. "And I don't think the American government will look kindly if the invitation is extended here in Germany. For a number reasons, but the top of this is list is: we have a process by which government employees and government contractors who believe the law has been broken can bring their grievance. Instead Snowden brought information to countries that have adversarial interests to the United States - and I think there's an assumption today that those countries possess a good deal of that information, if not all."

Speaking to DW afterwards, Hans-Christian Ströbele, the German Green party member who visited Snowden in Moscow at the end of October to ascertain whether he would be willing to testify in Germany, questioned whether there was any evidence that this was the case.

No apology

Murphy was similarly tough when asked whether - given all the talk of understanding grievances - an apology might be in order. "I think actions are more important than words," he would only say.

By way of actions, both Murphy and Meeks offered assurances that Obama's proposed review of the NSA's operations was a serious endeavor. "Don't underestimate the review process," said Meeks. "I know that some are skeptical of the president's review. But I am confident because I know that the president understands the history of the utilization of intelligence."

German lower house of parliament deputy Hans-Christian Stroebele talks to the media before a session of the parliamentary intelligence control committee (PKGR) in Berlin November 6, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS)
Hans-Christian Ströbele was glad the lawmakers cameImage: Reuters

Both men made strong appeals to the lessons of history. "I think it's just important to remember the different experiences here," said Murphy. "Our experiences come out of September 11, … we need to do everything within our power to make sure that another 4,000 Americans do not get killed by another airplane hijacked by terrorists. That educates our decision to increase the intelligence capability of the United States. The experience over here (in former East Germany - the ed.) was fundamentally different - here surveillance was used to repress and oppress a people."

That, however, casts doubt on whether there is really any political will to reform the NSA. One German audience member drew a withering conclusion after the panel discussion: "The Americans are caught between two stools," he told DW. "On the one hand it is embarrassing to them that there is evidence all over the world that have they been spying beyond any sense of proportion. On the other hand they have their own paranoia to deal with. … There needs to be honest willingness and not diplomatic catchphrases. That isn't how you become a model or a benchmark for the world."

But on the other hand Murphy and Meeks' visit was a nice gesture. As Ströbele concluded, "It's good that they came."