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Attacking Obama 'shows European weakness'

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Photo: DPA
17:27 CEST+02:00
German outrage at the US President has peaked as Barack Obama is due in Berlin. But accusing him of Stasi methods over the surveillance scandal borders on defamation, argues Malte Lehming in political magazine Cicero.

Morality is the power of the powerless. America may fight wars around the world, pull down dictators, send drones on missions, have the best universities, win Nobel prizes and set the standards in Hollywood and Silicon Valley – but the country is depraved, scrupulous, ego-centric and unilateral. We, in Germany and Europe, in contrast, respect human rights, protect the climate, do not manipulate genetics and give every terrorist a fair trial.

That is - only a little exaggerated – the view here shortly before the first visit of American President Barack Obama in Berlin. Again Germany has armed itself with morals. Obama's domestic policies do not offer much – health reform is underway, immigration reform has overcome important hurdles. And America's foreign policy has become very moderate – withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively stable relations with Russia and China. So another topic must be dusted off – the fight against terrorism – Guantanamo, drones, the power of secret services.

No wonder – America's economy is growing, unemployment is sinking, the country seems to be doing rather well in getting over the international finance and economic crisis. In Europe things are very different – the economy is stagnating, unemployment is high, the euro remains in danger. Demography points to trouble – in a few years the average age of an American will be 36 while that of a European will be 52. The results of this will be lower education spending, but much higher healthcare and pension costs.

He who cannot cope with a direct comparison of societies, and every reason to fear being even less able to cope with that in the future, seeks shelter in a compensatory narrative. America's amorality should balance out Europe's backwardness. The debate over drones and the so-called NSA affair gives two perfect examples.

Drones are the only option

First the drones. Obama wants to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He does not feel military intervention is a suitable weapon in the fight against terrorism. Al Qaida has become flexible and mobile. Smaller networks commute between Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Pakistan and other countries. Those who feel international terrorism is a grave security problem which cannot be combated with police methods alone, but against which classic wars also do not help, almost automatically land at the feet of drones. Because these weapons are becoming increasingly precise, they kill fewer civilians than any other way of waging war.

Three weeks ago Obama announced more restrictive rules for the use of drones. The inarguable results that can be achieved with these weapons must be weighed up against the creation of anti-American feelings among the people in those areas most heavily hit, such as Pakistan. And the Americans know that with these drone deployments, they are taking for themselves a kind of exceptional law for themselves – and which they do not grant other states. Yet it would be absurd if the well-meant slogan "the same rights for all", meant in reality a weakening of democracies in the fight against terrorism.

The second moral theme is the NSA. The talk is of spying, surveillance, Stasi methods. A couple of facts: The information programme which was publicized by the Guardian and the Washington Post, was based on paragraph 215 of the Patriot Act. Members of Congress knew from the beginning – what one knows about it so far was not illegal.

There is nothing new in the NSA case

Central in any case, and what is decidedly underexposed, is the difference between data collection and surveillance. Whether telephone calls, email traffic or communication via social networks: the NSA is only allowed to research who communicated when with who and from where. If that leads to a significant suspicion and endanger national security, the secret service can go to a court – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – which can, after weighing up all security and freedom rights, grant permission to look at the content of a communication.

So – the surveillance of private data without a court decision is factually ruled out. According to a US Constitutional Court verdict (Smith vs Maryland from 1979), it is only the content of a telephone call that is protected by a right to privacy – not the location or telephone number called.

While the American passion for collecting such data may be criticised, the Europeans should at least admit that their own secret services do not work so differently in matters of surveillance and spying. It is this that has enabled them (and the NSA) to uncover terrorist cells and stop dozens of attacks. There is no single piece of evidence of abused data.

Secret operations needed to protect open society

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The New York Times columnist and three-times Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman defends the secret service operations in their current structures for another reason – exactly because he treasures an open society and wants to keep it that way, efficiency in the fight against terrorism takes a high position in his agenda. "I believe that if there were to be another 9/11 – or worse, an attack with nuclear material – it could lead to the end of an open society as we know it."

So there is no misunderstanding: yes, many questions remain open about the NSA programme. Most should be answered publicly though. And it is right, when Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with the American President about it. In a democracy the citizens must have an idea of the structures and working methods of the secret services which are there to protect them. And private matters should remain private for at least as long as the private person is not posing a threat to others.

But to see in Obama in particular, someone who spies on peaceful Germans using Stasi methods, borders on defamation, and demonstrate ignorance. If it is correct, that morality is the power of the powerless, this country is obviously in an even worse condition than we thought.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Cicero, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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