Marino de Medici: The NSA and the bugging of Europe and the pope

By Marino de Medici

And now we learn that even the pope was subject to eavesdropping by the National Security Agency.

According to an Italian magazine, 46 million telephone calls were intercepted in Italy during just two months this year, including the ones made or received by the Vatican and the residence where the soon to be pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was staying during the conclave.

What were the objectives of this capillary penetration of Vatican communications? It was revealed that there were four of them: “leadership intentions,” “threats to the financial system,” “foreign policy objectives” and “human rights.”

While such “objectives” make sense for enemies, potential adversaries and maybe even friends and allies, one wonders how the pope can enter such an equation, unless one considers him a legitimate target of surveillance for his leadership over a billion Catholics or his control over the IOR, the Vatican Bank that has not been in odor of sanctity.

But the issue is still the same one that affects Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, the leader of one of the strongest allies of the United States, who is justly cross for having had her phone tapped by the omnipotent and pervasive electronic surveillance network run by the NSA. The issue is: how can the U.S. be held as an accountable and responsible global power by its allies when it treats them the same way as its enemies? The other question that the European allies raise is also a simple one: where are the highly vaunted checks and balances of the United States?

The second question is valid from an American viewpoint as well, in a way that posits that the European allies have little to complain because they are not treated differently from American citizens, whose phones, email and personal communications are similarly monitored.

The reality is that Europeans are much more concerned about their privacy than Americans and that a body of laws exist in Europe that protects an individual’s right to privacy and accordingly the freedom of citizens from the interference of the leviathan state. True, the American tea party represents a revolt against the unstoppable extension of federal powers, but surely its elected representatives have not placed themselves at the head of a movement for the defense of the citizens’ privacy.

The Patriot Act has given the U.S. government almost unlimited license for control over individual lives while European governments have not asked for or received such powers even when those nations were the target of terrorism, as was the case in Italy during the turbulent “years of lead.” As far as terrorism is concerned, slaughter from within and violence from outside do not make a great deal of difference.

The NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander testified in Congress that reports about the agency’s spying on European allies are “completely false” and that the European media misinterpreted the classified documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Needless to say, Europeans are not convinced, having seen plenty of documentation about the U.S. listening in through several locations in European countries in a large scale operation that cannot be explained away as something done “in defense of our countries,” as Alexander wants us to believe. The latest chapter is the revelation, also stemming from Snowden’s disclosures, about the tapping of the fiber optics cables of Google and Yahoo to extract information from American and foreign citizens.

The denial by Alexander, however, is less important than the message he conveyed to Congress, not to “overcorrect the authorization of the intelligence community.” This is a problem that in fact falls first and foremost on the shoulders of the president, who finds himself in a very uncomfortable position: he can claim, as some of his aides are saying, that he was not aware that the NSA was listening to Merkel’s phone, in which case a strong argument can be raised about his capacity to control his administration. Or he can stand by his intelligence community — as many people are urging him to do — and in so doing continue to incur the wrath of his European allies.

In both cases, Obama’s leadership is under scrutiny in a negative context.

Unquestionably, the federal bureaucracy, and particularly the vast intelligence apparatus, is too vast for a single chief of state to know all that it does. But the president has the duty to set an example and make the people under him accountable. While it can be argued, as Lord Palmerston did, that nations have no permanent friends or allies but only permanent interests, there are other dimensions beside the defense of national interests, primarily the need to nurture trust in government by the citizens of the United States as well as by those foreign leaders and people who look up to America.

Past history and contemporary American politics lead one to believe that President Obama will go through the motions without coming down on the intelligence community.
Not long ago, he said that no American citizen’s phone calls were being listened to. It is hard to imagine that he did not know. Yet, he will sit and wait for the storm to pass in Europe.

There is precious little that Europeans can do to bring about changes in the conduct of the American government. But they can defend their right to privacy by applying strict privacy regulations on American firms operating on the continent and by imposing penalties on them in case of violations. In fact, Germany is one of the most stalwart countries in enforcing the legislation for privacy protection.

As for Merkel, some commentators claim that her protestations are an attempt to modify the invasive penetration of American intelligence that is far superior to what Europeans can master in the field of spying. There is a precedent that the chancellor probably has in mind, the prohibition by President Ford of political assassinations overseas, an order that President Carter reinforced by banning indirect U.S. involvement in assassinations.

As for the pope, he can hardly excommunicate the leaders of a nation that bugs his phone. But one presumes that not even the NSA can intercept his spiritual communication with God.

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.