Why on earth was the United States bugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone?
Why would the Obama team risk upsetting one of the president’s closest allies? For what – some tattle on trade talks? Surely not for inside dope on combating terror, given that Germany is one of our closest partners in that fight.
The senselessness of the Merkel cell tap – which started in 2002 under George W. Bush, and was recently revealed by leaker Edward Snowden – shows how careless Washington has become about the collection of intelligence data. This was a case of the intelligence bureaucracy running on automatic pilot, without adequate political supervision.
We see the result.
“Over the last decade, our technological capacity has grown so much that the bureaucracy has gotten really out of control,” says Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the need for extensive intelligence collection to combat terrorist threats from abroad, which are growing again as U.S. troops quit Afghanistan and the Middle East implodes.
Yes, we know that close allies often spy on each other. (One has only to recall Jonathan Pollard, a civilian intel analyst at the Pentagon, who is serving a life sentence for passing classified info to Israel.)
Yet the tapping of Merkel reveals something deeply disturbing: how careless Washington has become about data collection. We are amassing data because we can, not because we must.
Merkel’s personal outrage at finding her phone tapped is not (as some Washington cynics claim) merely political theater. She grew up in East Germany, where the secret police, known as the Stasi, were notorious for spying on every aspect of people’s lives.
No wonder Merkel was outraged to learn that the tapping operation was conducted out of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gate, where Obama gave his famous 2008 speech to then-adoring Germans. What a betrayal of trust.
Yet no one at the White House seems to have foreseen the problem. Obama’s aides say he didn’t know about the spying on Merkel. Really? Didn’t they know? Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained that no one told her either. So who’s minding the store?
Of course, the same question is being asked on a larger scale since Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA’s collection of metadata at home – including vast troves of Americans’ phone and e-mail records. Yes, there are safeguards to (supposedly) ensure that none of the content of those calls or e-mails is examined without a special court order.
But if Merkel’s phone could be tapped for years without White House or congressional notice, one must ask whether there is adequate supervision of the intelligence bureaucracy.
In 2006, a think-tanker named Denis McDonough co-authored a report for the Center for American Progress subtitled “Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken.” McDonough is now White House chief of staff and might want to revisit the topic. He might also want to ensure that, in the near future, the NSA isn’t tapping the cellphones of close foreign allies.