NSA to stop spying on foreign leaders, continue spying on you

German Chancellor Angela Merkel describes the ideal bratwurst.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel describes the ideal bratwurst.

The New York Times reports that President Obama plans to ban NSA spying on heads of allied governments, because the Germans are upset. For those of you who do not surveil all electronic communications, the US government was embarrassed last week by revelations that the NSA had monitored the phone calls of 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The President totally didn’t know about it, though. Or at least he said he didn’t, which makes a lot of sense.

If you’re the NSA and you finally get up on Merkel’s burner, you wouldn’t gleefully inform the chief executive. And when you tell the President that Merkel said on the phone how Germany was going to vote on EU monetary policy, and he asks how you got that information, you would probably just say you took German in high school and try to shift the conversation to which foreign language he took.

Probably, the President is just saving face when he says he didn’t know we were listening to Merkel’s calls. His behavior is logical, but it’s also a little alarming when you remember that a few months ago, pretty much the same story about NSA spying broke with “the American people” in place of “Angela Merkel.”

The American people were outraged. They thought such conduct unbefitting an ostensible ally. And in that case, the President neither invoked plausible deniability nor felt obliged to stop.

You can argue, of course, that NSA domestic spying pays a much larger safety dividend than spying on Angela Merkel. There are hundreds of millions of Americans out there, many of whom are likely hatching crazy plots against the government right now, whereas there is only one Chancellor Merkel.

But it so happens you would have to make that argument about the Germans. When it comes to international relations with ostensibly friendly powers, when have they ever done anything screwy?

All fun/recollection of 20th-century genocides aside, it is dispiriting to see the President react so swiftly to outcry from a foreign head of state. The constitutional question of whether warrantless, universal wiretapping was legal barely entered into Obama’s public response to domestic NSA spying, yet he acted immediately to enforce an unwritten rule about how the US government treats its allies.

If you are the American people—and most of us are—how are you to interpret this development? It seems to me that Obama’s actions suggest one of two beliefs:

  1. The American people are more dangerous to the United States than Germany.
  2. The opinion of Angela Merkel is more important to the President than the opinion of the American people.

Neither possibility is tremendously appealing.

Option (1) is easy to read as the line between a modern, representative government and a Hapsburg-style system of control. It is an extremely problematic executive branch that sees the American people as a greater potential threat than the chancellor of Germany. If we genuinely believe that we need to keep a closer eye on Americans than on a foreign power—one that started two world wars in the last century—then perhaps we should admit that the democratic experiment is not operating under the terms our forefathers set out.

Option (2) is hardly better. When we find out that we’re being secretly spied on by the NSA, the President cannot even be bothered to issue a specious denial. When Angela Merkel finds out, he apologizes and shuts the whole thing down. Perhaps we could all be enjoying a federal ban on assault rifles right now, if only Angela Merkel had made a few calls. The promise of a healthy democratic system is that our chief executive should fear us—not in the take-steps-to-control-us way, but in a way that worries about our opinions.

It’s sad that the President would snap to when the Chancellor of Germany complains but not give a rip about similar objections from the American people. But it is also logical. Germany can do things without the US government’s consent, in a way the American people cannot. Here’s a fun question: if the US public agreed unanimously that domestic NSA spying must stop, could we do anything about it?

I suppose we could make it the defining issue of the 2016 presidential election, except the leaders of both our legitimate political parties agree that domestic wiretapping is okay. We could pressure the federal government through our congresspeople, but there’s reason to believe that Congress can’t control the NSA, either. If push came to shove, we could put together some kind of extra-governmental collective action, but it so happens that said government is monitoring all of our communications with one another.

Theorists call this problem reification: the degree to which an established system or authority resists change. This week, the executive branch and the US intelligence community it houses look pretty damn reified. It is scary to think that it’s easier to influence the American President from outside the United States. It is terrifying to wonder whether he cares if we know it.

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  1. It’s worth applying the concept of reification to the position of President too. Imagine you’re a law professor, then a national senator on a handful of committees, and then a president. You don’t start using your gut and sense of truthiness to decide how the office should operate, you listen and learn from people who have much more knowledge than you. After which you can decide whether to undo what is being done and propose a better solution, but more likely things are the way they are because intelligent people have made them that way. Reification refers to the cultural cement, but I think foreign policy, subject to natural selection, tends to select effective policies. As alarming as it sounds, I submit that spying, even on allies, is commonplace, and if we had the knowledge of the President and his spymaster, we would accept that. Over here in the stands it’s entertaining to tell each other who really should be getting the ball, but the President oversees a foreign policy apparatus whose policies weren’t determined by him, and a man as intellectually equipped as Obama would need good reasons to overturn them. Gut instincts and truthiness aren’t good enough.

  2. What if instead of “gut instinct and truthiness” we are talking about morals and values? In a democracy, if we state that we want a government that is perhaps less geopolitically dominant, but more truthful with its citizens and allies, who is our government to tell us no? If we are able to throw morals and privacy away through voting and political will (see post-9/11), shouldn’t it work the other way as well?

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