Europe Turns On 'Big Brother' US

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Ten years ago Europe was divided over the invasion of Iraq. The EU’s two most powerful members, France and Germany, were against the idea; Spain and Britain were for it.

Since then, Europe has struggled to agree on much at all when it comes to foreign policy. Different economic and political priorities have left Europe notoriously divided on issues of war and peace – and on Brussels’ relations with the superpowers, the US and China.

Not this week, though. The transatlantic alliance is at its lowest point in a decade.

Across Europe, US ambassadors have been called in for a grilling from their host governments, following new revelations of political surveillance and amid growing suspicion that Washington has launched cyber attacks on its European allies.

Late Friday, EU leaders signed off on a statement warning that “a lack of trust” could undermine transatlantic intelligence ties. Not even Britain was prepared to take on Angela Merkel and François Hollande over the matter.

As during the first weeks of the Snowden scandal in May and June, it is again in Germany where anger at “Big Brother America” – as the media has taken to calling the US – is fiercest.

Over Summer German ministers played “good cop, bad cop” – with some ministers condemning Germany’s transatlantic partner and others declaring the NSA scandal over. This time it's different. From the chancellor down, almost all German politicians are outraged.

After all, it’s now emerged that Merkel’s party-supplied phone, over which she horsetrades with many of Germany’s leading politicians, has been tapped since before she took over the chancellor’s job.

Merkel has at least two mobiles: her official, encrypted Blackberry, that she reportedly deploys for affairs of state; and one she uses to run her Christian Democratic Party. The latter is apparently an aging 2009-model Nokia, one that you can buy in any German department store.

It was this phone that the Americans almost certainly monitored. According to German media, an elite unit of CIA and NSA spies working at the American embassy in Berlin probably kept tabs on her.

Documents from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked to German weekly Der Spiegel show that the US embassy in Berlin was just one of 19 diplomatic posts in Europe where a “nest” of CIA and NSA spies, the “Special Collection Service”, was based.

Among other capitals that the Americans were watching: Paris, Madrid, Moscow, Prague and Rome. It is unclear where the other 60 American spying operations around the world are located.

Now, Der Spiegel reveals, wherever it spied on government and business, the US used the same modus operandi.

It smuggled in high-tech antennas, some of them dubbed “Einstein”, which it placed on the roof of its embassies and consulates. It used these to receive mobile phone signals. Conveniently enough, the US embassy in Berlin is located just 800 metres from the Kanzleramt, Merkel’s office.

The American spying operation targeting Merkel reportedly began in 2002, under George W. Bush. And there are conflicting claims about what Barack Obama knew about the surveillance.

While several reports in the German press on Sunday say that Obama denied knowledge of the snooping in his phone conversation with Merkel last week, other reports claim the US president may have known about the Berlin operation.

Security sources have told German tabloid Bild am Sonntag that Obama was “personally informed” about the spying in 2010. NSA boss Keith Alexander let the president know about the sting, the Sunday paper says.

Obama “let the operation continue” and later ordered the NSA to prepare a dossier on Merkel, the tabloid reports. According to Bild, the US president “didn’t trust Merkel” and wanted to know: "Who exactly is this woman?"

It appears Merkel is not the only allied leader with whom the US has tense relations behind the scenes. Paris suspected that Washington hacked the computers of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s entourage in 2012, Snowden documents passed to Parisian daily Le Monde show.

Then, with the second round of the French presidential election approaching, security operations detected taps on computers belonging to the then-president’s staff.

France immediately pointed the finger at Washington, but the NSA secretly denied US involvement, the Snowden documents show. At the same time, US operatives “helping” the French to identify the real culprit behind the spying did not share American suspicions that Israel could have launched the attack, Le Monde’s report says.

Meanwhile, suspicions are growing in Spain that the US may have launched a cyber attack on the ministry of foreign affairs in 2009, diplomats have told Madrid daily El País.

Then, Trojans designed to suck up information were discovered in the ministry’s central computer system. The Trojans were designed to leave no trace; Swiss intelligence informed the Spaniards of the attack, sources tell the paper.

At the time, it was thought that Russia was responsible, El País says. But the Snowden Affair has raised “suspicions” that an “allied nation could have been behind” the hack.

Rome is watching “Phonegate” unfold nervously, with Italian publications due to publish Snowden leaks in the coming weeks, says Italian daily La Repubblica.

While Italian intelligence has long known about the NSA/CIA operation in Rome, political leaders have accepted American promises that spies “have not conducted operations hostile to government officials or institutions", the paper says.

Yet promises like those did not stop American agents from snooping on Angela Merkel for over a decade. In response, Germany and France are now championing a “no-spy” deal with the United States.

Ensuring any such deal is credible may prove more challenging than making a no-spy pact. Merkel has let it be known that she no longer trusts Obama.

Her logic is simple: if Barack Obama had no knowledge of the US snooping, then it follows that he has lost control over the US surveillance apparatus. If he knew, then he has again misled her.

“Trust must now be restored,” Merkel said last week. Yet confidence is easier to shake than to restore. The latest twist in the Snowden Affair reveals one thing: the mistrust between Berlin, Paris and Washington that developed before the Iraq war has never been entirely dispelled.

BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories. 

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