Washington (AFP) – President Barack Obama must be used to the drill by now — picking up the phone to get an earful from another foreign leader venting at rampant U.S. spies.
On Monday, it was France. On Wednesday, Germany. No one knows which ally will be next with gripes at National Security Agency snooping on their emails and telephone calls.
The drip, drip, drip of revelations from fugitive contractor Edward Snowden is becoming more than just an irritant for the White House — it is undercutting its claims to have rescued George W. Bush-tarnished ties with America’s friends abroad.
Obama, once greeted as a hero across the Atlantic, is turning out, for many Europeans, to be not so different than the man he replaced.
A rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel — hardly prone to intemperate outbursts — took the NSA snooping affair to a new level of diplomatic angst on Wednesday.
Merkel called Obama and told him that if the NSA had indeed tapped her cellphone, she would regard it as “a grave breach of trust,” and demanded answers.
Her pique could be read as a logical political move — given pressure she already faced over claims U.S. spies monitored millions of foreign telephone calls and online exchanges as part of a sophisticated anti-terror sweep.
But it seemed to be something more.
Did the woman who grew up under the all seeing ears of East Germany’s Stasi secret police take the claims, first reported by Der Spiegel, as a personal affront?
“I do think the relationship between her and Obama is going to be damaged,” said Stephen Szabo of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“I think she is personally offended.”
Obama has spent considerable energy courting Merkel and privately speaks in glowing terms of her intellect and political nous.
But the White House account of the call will do little to quell anger in Germany.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney said his boss told Merkel that Washington “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her communications.
That left the clear implication that her conversations may indeed have been swept up in the past.
Washington, while telling allies like France and Germany that their concerns are “legitimate,” hardly seems contrite over the activities of the secretive NSA.
The Obama administration has promised foreign leaders to seek ways to balance security and privacy, but has come nowhere near an apology for activity it says is vital to breaking up international terror networks.
Privately, officials say that every nation spies — even on allies — and that Merkel is fair game in the great espionage caper.
They also point to U.S. cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies — hinting that governments who publicly protest at U.S. spying are in fact complicit in the game themselves.
Security officials separately dispute the factual basis of many reports based on Snowden’s leaked material.
Even if the NSA is trawling through millions of calls and emails with sophisticated mathematical programs, it does not mean America is some kind of Big Brother that could, or would actually “listen in” on mostly banal conversations.
But the sophistication of that argument cuts little ice in nations where indigenous resentment at U.S. power is fanned by sensational media claims.
“Since there are many such cases now in the news — Brazil, Mexico — I expect it will add to the general public anger aimed at the U.S. among those already disposed to be angry,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Some analysts warn that U.S. tech firms operating in Europe could face a backlash, or that the continent will use the furor to push for increased data protection rules in a proposed U.S.-Europe trade pact.
Meanwhile, a political game is underway — weakened foreign leaders are quick to exploit the NSA’s red face.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff seized on allegations that the NSA was spying on Brazilian government and commercial interests to deflect from her political plight at home.
She thumbed her nose by cancelling a White House state visit and slapped Washington at the United Nations General Assembly.
French President Francois Hollande, with approval ratings in free fall, took his licks during a call with Obama on Monday, after Le Monde reported the United States intercepted millions of telephone calls in France.
Mexico’s new President Enrique Pena Nieto is making hay from claims the NSA delved into his personal email.
But Vicente Fox, one of Nieto’s predecessors, is playing the grizzled elder statesman.
“It’s nothing new that there’s espionage in every government in the world, including Mexico,” he said. “I don’t understand the scandal.”
Former CIA operations officer Joseph Wippl of Boston University’s Department of International Relations said the latest allegations should come as no surprise, and were in fact a compliment to Germany.
“Chancellor Merkel is important. If the National Security Agency was not surveilling her communications, it was only because NSA was unable to do so,” he said.
“How could NSA not want to listen in on the person rated by Forbes as the second most powerful person in the world after President Obama?
“She leads the most important country in Europe.”
AFP Photo/Michael Sohn