US Prism Scandal 'Security Is Not an End in Itself'

How much monitoring is too much and at what point does freedom become compromised? With its Prism spy program, the US has crossed the line.

An NSA campus in Fort Meade: "All facts must be put on the table."

An NSA campus in Fort Meade: "All facts must be put on the table."

A Commentary by German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger

Shortly before US President Barack Obama's visit to Berlin, Germans are troubled by questions regarding the extent to which the United States monitors Internet traffic worldwide. Is it true, as the media claim, that the United States can access and track virtually every form of communication on the Internet at the source? The Guardian and the Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) could gain direct access to and read user data with the so-called "Prism" program. An unnamed intelligence officer was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that the NSA could "quite literally … watch your ideas form as you type."

Internet giants like Facebook and Google were quick to issue denials, saying that they do not release any information without a court order. But doubts remain.

These reports are deeply disconcerting. When viewed in its entirety, this massive effort to acquire information, if it is true, would be dangerous.

On the weekend, President Obama reacted by saying that it is impossible to have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.

I don't share this view. The more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is. In a democratic constitutional state, security is not an end in itself, but serves to secure freedom.

A Reasonable Balance

America has been a different country since the horrible terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The country's security architecture was drastically restructured. One goal was to link all institutions and create a broad flow of information among the different security agencies. The relationship between freedom and security has shifted, to the detriment of freedom, especially as a result of the Patriot Act, which was introduced only a few days after 9/11. The Patriot Act is essentially a number of legislative packages passed in rapid succession. They expanded the opportunities for surveillance, just as they created the possibility of imprisonment for the purpose of preventing acts of terror.

To summarize: As much as we want counterterrorism efforts to be effective, there has to be a reasonable balance between security and the freedom of citizens. The Patriot Act significantly limited the civil rights of Americans.

The development was repeatedly criticized internationally. President Obama, a lawyer specializing in US constitutional law, was also critical of this development in the past. But the restrictions on civil rights and liberties enacted in connection with President George W. Bush's "War on Terror" have not been reversed since Obama became president.

Alarming and Cannot Be Ignored

We should remember that the strength of the liberal constitutional state lies in the trust of its citizens. Constitutional guarantees protect this trust and pursue two objectives: to punish the guilty and to protect the innocent or those who are unjustly suspected of a crime against wrongful actions by the government. These are precisely the tenets Germany adopted in 1949 from the tradition of the American Constitution of 1776 -- namely that in a free and open democratic process, it is important to avoid the impression that the protection of basic rights is not being taken seriously enough.

The American politician and author Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the US administration itself should be paramount at this point. All facts must be put on the table.

The global Internet has become indispensible for a competitive economy, the sharing of information and the strengthening of human rights in authoritarian countries. But our trust in these technologies threatens to be lost in the face of comprehensive surveillance activities.

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Inglenda2 06/11/2013
1. NSA and USA
Germans are right to be troubled by questions regarding the extent to which the United States illegally monitors Internet traffic. One of the very countries, which criticised the German people for not doing more to stop the crimes of a Nazi government, now cries because the violations of their own National Security Agency (NSA) have been made public. The former intelligence worker, who was brave enough to point out this breach of integrity by his government, must now fear being kidnapped and tried by the authorities of the USA. Although such an action by the secret services is in no way to be defended, at least the chances are very small, that he will be the victim of a bogus suicide, as has happened to other persons who have been brave enough to publicly speak the truth about illicit conduct of their governments. . President Obama, who defended this spying on friends and foes alike, by saying that it is impossible to have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience, has reached the point where nobody can believe anything he says. Like his predecessor George W. Bush he uses the "War on Terror" as an excuse to commit crimes against humanity, such as the targeted killing of possible adversaries, without trial. This is not an example of freedom and democracy for the world, which the USA claims for itself, but rather one of pure nationalism as was seen in Europe during the last century. President Obama has kept few of the promises he made before coming to power. It is therefore time for him to give back the Nobel Peace Prize in exchange for a Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Münchhausen award! This he could collect during his nearing visit to Germany.
schwilling2000 06/11/2013
2. This is not new to us here in the Untied States
Under H.R. 645 they have built a concentration camps system. They cannot lie about it anymore to many people know. Under section 1021 and 1022 of the NDAA they have created indefinite detention without due process of law. And under H.R 347 they have given the Secret Service unlimited power. Now can anyone please tell me what this sounds like.
laycockh 06/11/2013
3. 'Security Is Not an End in Itself'
The Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is right. This is extremely dangerous. It has been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When power is unaccountable, and public opinion can be secretly manipulated, a police state is very close. The system is unable to see itself for what it is, a dangerous monster.
fireboatman 06/12/2013
4. Prism
Your Excellency, Indeed you have resented very chilling thoughts on what our government is doing to us and we have taken notice. Take notice of our new Tea Party that is organized by the patriots of our Constitution and we are getting stronger all of the time. The mid term election wherein many Senators and Congressmen are elected into office will occur in 2014. Another daunting fact unlike other countries we are a citizen armed army of which our government has tried to dismantle, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto IJN in 1944 said "I would never land troops on American soil because there is a rifle behind every blade of grass." Indeed Sir Germany and all of Europe should be concerned and action should be taken.
sharon_st100 06/12/2013
5. optional
Will be interested in hearing the Justice minister's views on France which has had more stringent laws than anything in the patriot act to deal with Islamic terrorism on its soil. Does the Justice minister even know about French anti-terrorism laws? I look forward to the Justice minister's views on how Germany handled the aftermath of Munich olympics terrorist attack. What are her views on the Germany became a police state with Arab immigrants dragged from their beds in the middle of night simply for being Arabs and held indefinitely without any rights to a lawyer. Were any of them tortured? Don't know and don't care? And lastly why is the German media hiding the vast human rights abuses against people after the Munich olympics terrorist attacks which are well known outside of Germany but not in Germany. Is there a free press in Germany?
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