current affairs

Merkel phone-tap revelations escalate US spying row

The controversy and furore over claims regarding the extent of US spying has been steadily gathering pace over recent months. Germany has summoned the US am

The controversy and furore over claims regarding the extent of US spying has been steadily gathering pace over recent months. Germany has summoned the US ambassador in Berlin over claims that the US monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will meet US envoy John Emerson in what is seen as an unusual step between close allies. Mrs Merkel has demanded a “complete explanation” of the claims, which are threatening to overshadow an EU summit.

Leaking to the media

The scandal first broke when Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the CIA, left the US in late May after leaking to the media details of extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence. The information he leaked led to claims of systematic spying by the NSA and CIA on a global scale. After fleeing to Hong Kong, Snowden told the South China Morning Post that the NSA had led more than 61,000 hacking operations worldwide, including many in Hong Kong and mainland China, targeting universities and public officials.

Snowden is currently in Russia, where he was granted a year-long visa after making an asylum application. The US wants him extradited to face trial on criminal charges.

In early June the Guardian reported that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was also intercepting the phone records of tens of millions of US citizens. This report was sharply followed by revelations that the NSA tapped directly into the servers of internet firms including Facebook, Google and Microsoft to track online communication.

Claims then emerged on the 29th June that the NSA had also spied on EU offices in the US and Europe, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel. The magazine said it had seen leaked NSA documents proving the US had spied on EU internal networks in Washington and at the 27-member bloc’s UN office in New York. The files also alleged that the NSA had conducted an electronic eavesdropping operation in a building in Brussels, many EU institutions are located.

Electronic Eavesdropping

Furthermore, it was revealed on the 1st of July that 38 embassies had been the targeted by US spying operations. Such nations included France, Italy and Greece, as well as America’s non-European allies such as Japan, South Korea and India. EU embassies in New York and Washington were also said to be under surveillance. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that activities to protect national security were “not unusual” in international relations.

Next, US allies in Latin America were angered by revelations on 10th July that the NSA ran a continent-wide surveillance programme. The Brazilian newspaper O Globo cited leaked documents showing that, until 2002, the NSA ran the operation from a base in Brasilia. Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile all demanded answers from the US.

The revelations kept coming, and in September more claims emerged that emails and phone calls of the Presidents of Mexico and Brazil had been intercepted. The US had also been spying on Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil firm. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff subsequently cancelled a state visit to the US in the most high-profile diplomatic move since the scandal hit.

Inappropriate monitoring in Germany

However, with the accusations of tapping Mrs Merkel’s phone, now in late October the row has become major global headline news once again. Merkel discussed the issue with US President Barack Obama on Wednesday where the US President assured Mrs Merkel the US was not monitoring her calls and would not in future, The White House said. However, it left open the question of whether calls had been listened to in the past.

This offends in Germany more than others because Angela Merkel governs by her mobile phone – she is often seen to be checking it or sending texts. Mrs Merkel herself grew up in East Germany, where phone-tapping was common, further making the monitoring of phone calls in Germany inappropriate. Her spokesman said the German Chancellor “views such practices as completely unacceptable”.

“Among close friends and partners, as the Federal Republic of Germany and the US have been for decades, there should be no such monitoring of the communications of a head of government,” said Steffen Seibert.

This story follows another development on Monday, when France summoned the US ambassador over reports in Le Monde that the NSA had spied on 70.3 million French phone calls between December 2012 and January 2013. Then on Tuesday, Le Monde reported that the NSA had also spied on French diplomats at the UN and in Washington.

French President Francois Hollande has already called for the issue to be put on the agenda of the upcoming EU summit, where leaders are due to discuss Europe’s digital economy, economic recovery and immigration. Other leaders are also likely to join France and Germany in demanding further clarification from Washington over the actions of the NSA in Europe.

Washington maintains some of the French reports were false, but even so the French president wants to put American spying on the summit agenda. His poll ratings are low and he is under fierce criticism for his leadership, even within his own party. He may find a row with the US a useful and timely diversion.

Europe now feels the need to register a direct protest and the summit in Brussels provides such a platform. The continent is insulted and offended by all the allegations of US spying, but there are reasons why this will not become a deep rift between Europe and the United States. In France there are voices of caution. One former foreign minister said: “Let us be honest, we’re eavesdropping too” – but admitted that the magnitude of the American operation was shocking.

Shocking magnitude

Another reason is trade. The Americans and the Europeans have started discussing a free trade deal with potentially huge benefits to both sides.  In Brussels the deal is regarded as a priority.

The reaction of the German government to this most recent spying controversy can be seen as a warning shot directed towards the US. The reality of the situation, particularly between the US and Europe, is that the two are Allies. The US for all its worry about national security must learn to trust these Allies so they can work together in confidence to build a better, safer future. If it doesn’t, then, arguably much like China, the US risks becoming diplomatically isolated. Such an eventuality would be disastrous.

Have America over stepped the mark or is eavesdropping an issue of public safety? Have your say in the comments section.