Just a few days ago, the man whom many Germans now see as one of the greatest villains in the world visited Berlin. Keith Alexander, the head of the world's most powerful intelligence operation, the National Security Agency (NSA), had arranged meetings with important representatives of the German government, including top-ranking officials in Germany's intelligence agencies and leading representatives of the Chancellery and the Interior Ministry.
Alexander gave his usual presentation about how the world could be more effectively spied on and allegedly made safer. At such presentations, the NSA chief likes to extol the virtues of his agency's "incredible technical expertise," and he urges allies to invest more in controlling and monitoring today's new technologies. Alexander maintains there has to be more intensive surveillance of the Internet.
But while they were still chatting about the Internet in Berlin government offices, news stories were breaking around the world that Alexander's NSA may already have the Web firmly under its control. A former US intelligence official named Edward Snowden had leaked information to the press on the virtually all-encompassing Prism online surveillance program.
The world soon learned that Alexander's NSA, with the help of direct access to the servers of US Internet giants, is able to secretly read, record and store nearly every type of digital communication worldwide. The public also discovered that the Americans have a preference for spying on Germany -- more so than on any other country in Europe. During the days of the Cold War, when Germans referred to the US as "big brother" it had a positive connotation. Now, that term has an entirely different meaning.
Snowden's leak raises important questions: How much surveillance of the Internet is a free society willing or able to tolerate? Does the fear of attacks justify a comprehensive monitoring of e-mails, search queries on Google and conversations on Skype? And can a country like Germany allow its citizens to be spied on by another country?
'The State Cannot Look Away'
Surveillance cannot be based on blind faith in a democracy, but rather on a wide degree of acceptance by informed citizens, politicians and allied countries. This is by no means the case with Prism.
There are plenty of reasons to venture a confrontation with the Americans over this issue, particularly in Germany, where there has been a greater awareness of the importance of data protection than elsewhere in the world, and where citizens have engaged in heated debates over routine data collection efforts such as the national census.
"When foreign agencies infringe upon fundamental rights on German territory, the state cannot look away," says Dieter Deiseroth, a judge at Germany's Federal Administrative Court. "Accepting the massive collection of private information would be a serious violation of the principle that every state has to defend such rights," he contends.
Will Revelations Disrupt Obama Visit?
Yet the German government and German intelligence agencies are reacting in such a blasé manner to the intrigues of their visitor from the NSA that it's as if they have been told something as banal as the notion that English is "de facto" the official language of the US.
The revelations appeared to be unpleasant for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was presumably concerned that the news could disrupt this week's carefully choreographed visit to Berlin by US President Barack Obama. During an internal discussion, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert reacted almost indignantly when the Justice Ministry urged an inquiry into the matter -- the only German ministry to make such a demand. Publicly, though, Seibert merely said that this "annoying" matter had to be thoroughly examined and that this review process remained ongoing. Furthermore, the Interior Ministry announced that it was discussing the issue with US agencies. Genuine concern would have sounded different.
Why is the German government reacting so calmly to something that it should find alarming? Perhaps because these revelations are nothing new for it? Because the Germans would like to enjoy the same capabilities that Prism affords the Americans? Or because our friends from the other side of the Atlantic so readily share their knowledge about the world and its villains with us?