“The largest espionage scandal in the 21st century is shaking Germany,” wrote Peer Steinbrück, the man who is desperately trying to unseat one of the most popular German politicians, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Massive anti-NSA protests spread across the country…. Well, 1,000 demonstrators straggled through Frankfurt. It’s going to be tough for him.
Edward Snowden’s revelation of widespread US and British spying on German internet and telecommunications – and Germany’s own role in it – damaged confidence in the democratic rule of law, and suspicions were growing that constitutional rights had been “systematically violated millions of times,” he asserted in his guest commentary in the Frankfurter Rundschau – 56 days before the election. The SPD’s candidate for chancellor, and erstwhile Finance Minister under Merkel’s grand coalition government of 2005-2009, was running out of time.
Back in June, 100 days before the election, only 14% of German voters believed that he could become chancellor, while 78% believed that he was electoral road kill. Even among SPD supporters, moroseness had taken over: only 22% believed he’d make it. The spy scandal might be his last chance. Only a big debacle could unseat Merkel. But Germany was on vacation, and the government would simply not allow any big debacles to transpire before the elections.
So Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich was sent to the forefront to defend the NSA’s surveillance programs. July 12, he went to the US ostensibly to be briefed by the NSA and came back a strong supporter. At the time, he said they’d prevented five terror attacks in Germany. Later, he was forced to cut that down to two.
On Monday, at a conference in Riesa, Saxony, not far from Dresden, he twisted himself into a linguistic knot defending the programs again. Communications were just being “filtered,” he said. It was hardly any spying at all. “The point is that we have worldwide networks of organized crime and terrorism, and intelligence must be gathered on these networks.” That would be necessary for the survival of Europe, he said. People shouldn’t get all rattled by this.
How the government has responded to these near daily revelations “is a scandal within the scandal,” Steinbrück counterattacked. The minister of the interior acted “like a spokesman for the NSA.” And with his “abstruse formulation of security as a ‘super-constitutional law,’ he exhibited “a deviant understanding of the constitution.”
Then Steinbrück swung his guns in direction of the Chancellery, the federal agency serving as the executive office of the Chancellor. Its head, Ronald Pofalla, responsible for the coordination of the intelligence services, still hasn’t given any answers about “the details and the extent of the spying, and in particular about the question if this spying is continuing, let alone what he wants to do about it.”
Finally, his verbal wrath hit his true target, Merkel, who has claimed that she, as head of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, had only “newspaper knowledge” about the spying.
If her “asserted ignorance” – her “apparent helplessness and speechlessness” – is true, it would raise questions about “who actually governs this country.” If the government didn’t know about foreign intelligence services spying on Germans everywhere for years, as she claimed, it would mean that the surveillance has evolved “beyond the democratically legitimate order of our state into a digital shadow realm that undermines German sovereignty.”
But if she avoided knowing what she should have known in order to be protected from problematic knowledge, it would be “intentional ignorance.” It undermined in a targeted manner the principle of political responsibility, he wrote, and turned “a parliamentary democracy into a banana republic.”
Edward Snowden has described intentional ignorance as tactical mechanism that governments would use to defend themselves against the spying revelations; and Steinbrück suggested that it had been deployed in the Chancellery. “Organized irresponsibility” he called it.
This new era of American security interests, together with vast collection and storage capabilities, was a “paradigm shift in international politics,” he wrote. It threatened to throw the relationship between freedom and security off balance, not only in Germany, but in Europe, and even in the US itself.
And so he posed his “central question”: has Merkel, even in the face of constant revelations about the eavesdropping, given priority to American security strategies instead of protecting the interests and constitutional rights of Germany, its citizens, and its economy?
This was as hard as he could hit. It might not have been enough to dent Merkel’s powerful machine. But for the first time, a lot of people nodded in agreement. And then the tongues started wagging – that he too, if he ever made it onto the throne, would do exactly the same thing and continue those policies, and genuflect before the altar of Big Data, of which all this was an outgrowth, and perhaps he’d even close his eyes in an act of intentional ignorance – because surveillance and data collection on such a scale is just too handy of a tool for governments to abandon.
From tiny app makers to giant telecom companies, they’re all chasing after billions by collecting, storing, and mining personal data. Data is money. Much more than money, if governments get it. Which led Cullen Hoback to lament about his new documentary on privacy: “The craziest thing is that I didn’t realize I was making a horror film.” Read…. The Worldwide Surveillance And Privacy War (Which You Already Lost).