European commentators see little to praise in Obama’s NSA changes

McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 17, 2014 

— President Barack Obama’s highly anticipated revisions to the National Security Agency international spying program didn’t come close to satisfying European commentators.

The French newspaper Le Monde called them “timid and partial.” The British newspaper The Guardian referred to them as “sleight of hand.” The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel called them “Refoermchen,” meaning less than a real reform, or a “tiny reform.” The Russian news agency Novosti reminded its audience that “neither the reform nor the statement would have happened without the leaks from Edward Snowden,” a former NSA contract worker who began leaking secret files back in June. The German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau simply noted in a headline: “Obama disappoints the world.”

The reason? The speech made it clear to Europeans that the Obama administration intends to continue to collect almost as much data as it always has, but has promised not to use it unless necessary. To Europeans, who since last summer have grown increasingly distrustful of the intentions of the American spy program, such words are of little comfort.

As the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung wrote, under a headline of “Nothing but cosmetics,” the priority of the talk was clearly that national security trumps privacy.

“Angela Merkel can be pretty sure her cellphone will no longer be tapped, but that doesn’t change anything for the rest of us,” the paper wrote. “Rarely has a U.S. president made it so clear how little he cares for the concerns of his allies.”

A White House fact sheet on the talk summed up its general points by noting that “In terms of our bulk collection, we will only use data to meet specific security requirements: counterintelligence; counterterrorism; counter-proliferation; cybersecurity; force protection for our troops and allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion. . . . The president has also decided that we will take the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas.”

Those steps “will limit the duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting the dissemination of this information.”

Europeans, who’ve been mortified by scope of information collected, had wanted that scope drastically reduced.

In Germany, fears of government data collection have a long, and inglorious, history. As former East German Stasi department head Wolfgang Schmidt, 73, explained to McClatchy last summer, the dark side to gathering so much information is obvious.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

After Obama’s speech, The Guardian quoted Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green Party member of the European Union Parliament, as saying that the proposed change “is not sufficient at all. The collection of foreigners’ data will go on. There is almost nothing here for the Europeans. I see no further limitations in scope. There is nothing here that leads to a change of the situation.”

And the paper quoted Claude Moraes, a British Labor member of Parliament, as questioning whether Europeans should feel reassured.

“He didn’t actually give any substantial proposals in the foreign area,” Moraes said.

Der Spiegel’s term “refoermchen” echoes the endearing manner in which mothers refer to their toddlers as “Gummibaerchen.”

But the magazine made it clear that it doesn’t think this American policy is cute, calling it “a disappointment” born in the fact that “The NSA has turned the Internet into a weapon.”

The NSA spy program is worth billions to the United States, the magazine noted, and it cautioned Germans not to “expect that to be abandoned.”

The French paper Le Monde noted that even the revisions Obama proposed require action by a famously divided Congress: “Rather than reform, Barack Obama chose to try to reassure.”

Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian’s U.S. national security editor, tweeted: “This list of what NSA will ‘only’ *use* its signals intelligence for is a sleight of hand. It will still *collect* as much as it can abroad.”

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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