The controversy over the U.S. National Security Agency listening to personal telephone calls made to and from German Chancellor Angela Merkl’s private cellphone is revealing.
Merkl and other European leaders are outraged. They are staunch U.S. allies, or they were until this controversy erupted. They say this is no way to treat your friends.
For Merkl personally, this level of snooping is a reminder of her upbringing in East Germany, where agents of the state routinely tapped telephones and listened to private conversations. People were paid to report on their friends’ and relatives’ activities. All of this was done in the pre-internet and pre-cellphone era.
Merkl has been one of the best European leaders in a generation and recently won impressive election victories in Germany. She is well-regarded by her countrymen and by most Europeans.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to distance himself from personal involvement in this scandal. The White House is saying he did not know that Merkl’s cellphone was being intercepted by agents of the U.S. government.
Obama is using the same type of political defence that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is using in regard to the $90,000 cheque written by Nigel Wright, his former chief of staff. Both are saying they had no “direct” or “personal” knowledge.
Obama is being disingenuous. There is no question that people who report directly to the president know which world leaders are being spied on. And as Norman Spector, a former top aide in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s office, said Monday, it is entirely possible that Harper himself is being spied on in some fashion by one arm of the U.S. security apparatus.
This level of paranoia isn’t anything new in the security establishment, as is illustrated by the East German example cited above.
However, in an age of increasing connectedness through the internet, email and social media, it’s never been easier to keep tabs on people — particularly when you have an unlimited budget at your disposal.
Cellphone conversations are also easier to intercept, as they do not require wires, and the bugging equipment available today is very sophisticated.
It is very hard to keep secrets these days. Most of us are connected through the internet in some way, and many of us are deeply connected in many ways.
Even for those few who do not have any internet presence, have never sent an email and do not own cellphones, it is easier than ever for one or another government agency to keep tabs on you. The government has a great deal of information at the tip of employees’ fingertips, via its computer databases.
As a former customs officer, I have noted the vast change in the quantity of information available to officers when we cross the border, either into the U.S. or back into Canada. When I worked there, we had no easy way to trace a licence number, nor did we know when a vehicle had actually crossed the border.
All that information and much more is in front of the officer we speak to at the border.