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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Barack Obama and Snowden-gate: about keeping your friends closer than your enemies… and how your friends respond to this!

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it’s gone

 “There are many things my father
taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep
your friends close, but your enemies closer”.

Michael Corleone, the infamous, fictitious hero from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ movies, was a wise man, when he uttered the aforementioned quote.

People and countries need to have a very watchful eye towards their enemies, in order to protect their own interests. Effective (counter)espionage has been a life-saver for many countries in the past and helped them to survive through times of war, peace and economic hardship: “all is fair in love and war” is a beautiful and justified proverb.

And of course, although most people don’t like it, it is also smart politics for many countries to have a watchful eye towards their friends. Especially, when these countries have doubts about their friends’ plans and good intensions. It would be stupid to ignore these basic lessons, as these were taught the hard way to almost every country, during the past centuries which were full of smaller and bigger wars all over the world.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama of the United States and his henchmen, like British PM David Cameron, seemed to have mixed up the Michael Corleone quote very badly; during the last decade, they kept their friends so close, that these friends started to feel like being enemies of the United States and the United Kingdom. And now these friends are enraged and looking for revenge…

What millions of officials, special interest organizations like Bits for Freedom and worried private citizens failed to do, was achieved by one intelligent and ‘nerdish’ youngster with an opaque past: he put espionage and (the complete loss of) privacy & secrecy back on the map of many people and governments.

Whether you agree with Edward Snowden’s actions or not: it was just what the doctor ordered in a world, where privacy and secrecy were things of the past, “because we had nothing to hide and we trusted that our friends would behave themselves like friends indeed”.

Well, continental Europe and a.o. Brazil found out the hard way, that we couldn’t trust our friends, especially when these friends were represented by ‘alphabet soup’ government services, like the NSA, CIA or (the British) GCHQ.

In other words, it was time for officials and citizens, who had been assuming the ostrich position for a long, long time, to pull their heads out of the sand and face the music.

In the past, the European Union’s tone of voice towards the intrusive laws and the espionage actions of the United States and – in its trail – the United Kingdom had always been very trivializing:

  • “Well, we understand that the United States Patriot Act is an undemocratic and intrusive piece of junk law, which violates all our European privacy and information protection laws and puts the information of the whole world in their crosshairs. But you have to understand: the Americans suffered enormously from these terrible attacks on 9-11 and hey… they are our friends!!”
  • “Of course, it is massively harming our privacy, that we have to send all this private information about ourselves and our families to the US, when we want to go there for holidays or business. And naturally, it is ridiculous that the EU doesn’t force the Americans to do us the same courtesy, but we have to send this information; otherwise we can’t get in there”.
  • “Yes, we know that the CIA is monitoring the SWIFT-messages in Belgium and we know also that the NSA is tapping our telephone calls and email, but they are our friends. We are sure that they won’t abuse the information, aren’t we?!. The battle of Airbus vs Boeing, concerning the delivery of US Army refueling planes, where Boeing seemed to know the size of all offers that Airbus made, must have been an incident”
And this friendly, forgiving and trivializing stance would probably have continued forever, had not Edward Snowden entered the world stage and opened Pandora’s Box, with his revelations about the international spying and tapping networks of the United States and Great Britain.

Suddenly, it seemed that the protests against these intrusive policies gained critical mass: not only among the aware and increasingly worried European and Brazilian citizens, but finally also among the government leaders of the continental European countries and Brazil.

When it came to official protests against these espionage policies, Angela Merkel (the German chancellor) was forced by her citizens to run the gauntlet. In the beginning of September, Merkel had to deal with massive protest demonstrations of worried and enraged German citizens, against the vast espionage programs of her allies:

The protesters were also furious at what they regard the German government's lax reaction to the US surveillance activities.

“Intelligence agencies like the NSA shamelessly spy on telephone conversations and Internet connections worldwide (and) our government, one of whose key roles is the protection from harm, sends off soothing explanations,” said one of the demonstrators.

However, of late, the loudest protests came from President Dima Rousseff of Brazil.

First, she publicly offended President Obama, by openly withdrawing her announced visit to the US (the first in almost twenty years), due to the espionage scandal. 
Where a  “diplomatic headache” would have been sufficient in case of other, more ‘normal’ diplomatic scandals, Rousseff chose for the frontal attack in this situation. And to make things even worse for Obama, Rousseff gave the US a public scolding during today’s UN General Assembly, almost unprecedented for allies and trade partners of the US.

This scolding must not only be seen as a testimony of the Brazilian anger about this espionage scandal, but also as exemplary for the changed economic and political situation in the world. Brazil is officially one of the ‘big boys’ now and wants to be treated with respect by its allies.  

The Financial Times wrote the following lines upon this developing story:

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff took her campaign against US spying to the UN on Tuesday, opening the organisation’s annual general assembly with a strong attack on foreign espionage using the internet.

The president, who last week postponed what would have been Brazil’s first state visit to Washington in nearly two decades over the issue, proposed a set of international norms to guarantee privacy on the internet.

 “We are...confronting a case of grave violations of human rights and civil liberties as well as the invasion and capture of secret information about the activities of companies and above all, disrespect for the national sovereignty of my country,” she told the assembly.

Ms Rousseff’s pursuit of the espionage issue will add to pressure on the US to respond to Brazil’s complaints, with Latin America’s largest country seeking a formal explanation, apology and pledge not to repeat the activity.

There is little to be misunderstood in this message, by Dima Rousseff, I suppose.

And today, the Dutch newspaper ‘Telegraaf’ printed an article, which testifies that Brazil is not the only party to (slowly) lose its patience with the United States.

Even the European Union – normally notorious for its weak and obedient reactions and nondescript explanations, when it comes to such political quarrels with the United States (and the United Kingdom) – shows signs that it has finally hit the limits of its patience and forgiveness towards its most important trading partner.

Brussels increases the pressure on the United States, in the affair concerning the American espionage upon European banking data. This Tuesday, the European Commission announced disguisedly that it plans to abolish a certain treaty with the United States.

When the accusations [against the US – EL] prove to be right, these represent a violation of the treaty. This was emphasized by European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström of Internal Affairs, during a public hearing at the European Parliament. She stated to be dissatisfied with the information and explanations that she received from the Americans, until now.

The treaty in question concerns an agreement between the EU and the US upon the international payment operator SWIFT, which maintains the payment traffic of over 10,000 banks, other financial institutions and companies. Under strict circumstances, the US are allowed to monitor certain data, as a consequence of their war against international terrorism.

However, certain media stated shortly that the American intelligence service NSA is clandestinely and systematically monitoring all payment traffic. However, when asked, SWIFT itself stated to have no proof of illicit intrusions of their network and data.

Of course, this is only a small and innocent reaction of the EU in – what seems to be – a very limited share of the whole, far-stretching espionage scandal.

However, it could be that the European Union finally starts to understand what happens to the privacy and secrecy of their own organization and their citizens, when these kinds of espionage by countries that could be considered as friends, are allowed.

Brazil is already further on this path and seemingly doesn’t want to stop yet.

The remainder of the Financial Times article (which I didn’t print) was full of contemplations about the question, whether it was a sensible step of Brazil at the UN today. Probably, in the eyes of many diplomats, it wasn’t.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Brazil sent a very powerful signal to the US and UK today: these countries should stop with keeping their friends closer than their enemies. Else, loyal friends could easily turn into enemies, in these time of economic hardship and brutal competition for economic growth. 

A signal that cannot and should not be overheard by the rest of the world…

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