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We're tricked, their treat

Ripping apart the Iron Curtain was expected to dispel the darkness, not create a situation where a German artist projects a message upon the US Embassy in Berlin that reads, 'United Stasi of America'. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

columns Updated: Nov 01, 2013 21:54 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

Still a United States senator then and a presidential candidate, Barack Obama's speech at Berlin's Tiergarten in the summer of 2008 was part of his European outreach programme. Riffing symbolically on bringing down walls, Obama spoke grandiloquently about creating new partnerships and what that meant: "They require allies who will listen to each other."

That Tiergarten venue stands less than two kilometres from the German chancellor's offices in the Bundeskanzleramt. Now, as the controversy over America's National Security Agency tapping into the communications of 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone, turns into a continental contretemps, there are probably voices in Berlin muttering wishes that its ally didn't listen so very closely.

Five years after Obama hit the Euro trail, Europe is reverberating with a giant sucking sound of all that communication data being vacuumed in by the NSA's Boundless Informant. Quicker than you can say EU, Obama has gone from a feted Nobel laureate to an ignoble eavesdropper.

The Obama administration is into multinational espionage in every sense possible: From eyes in the sky, to ears on the ground, and their noses in everyone's business. And possibly seeking a line into heaven as well, going by reports that the NSA's targets included the Pope.

Newspapers in France and Spain also reported that tens of millions of their citizens' calls were intercepted during a period of about a month. That has been refuted by American spymasters, who claimed the data was shared by their Nato allies.

That clarification doesn't quite clear the air of the mixed signals already transmitted. As Ecuador's President Rafael Correa commented, "At first they said it was necessary for fighting against terrorism. I don't know if Angela Merkel is a terrorist."

Correa heads a country that hosts WikiLeaks founder and fugitive Julian Assange at its Embassy in London, and has offered to consider any application for shelter from NSA supergrass Edward Snowden, currently enjoying Russian refuge.

Curiously enough, Ecuador isn't quite a haven for freedom of expression as it recently introduced its own decree that apparently prohibits social organisations from disagreeing with the government.

And the backlash from the NSA scandal means countries like China, with its expansive cyberespionage infrastructure, can now go on the lecture circuit, as an editorial in the China Daily noted: "Countries like China and Russia, who may fall in the category of American 'rivals', can only imagine the extent of US eavesdropping."

Merkel grew up in the former East Germany, with its suffocating surveillance society run by the Stasi, the state secret police. Frederick Forsyth, the author of thrillers like Day of the Jackal, told Reuters: "Frau Merkel has been listened to since she was a teenager. The only thing that amazes me about the furore is that it amazes people."

However, ripping apart the Iron Curtain was expected to dispel that darkness, not create a situation where a German artist projects a message upon the US Embassy in Berlin that reads, 'United Stasi of America', as was the case this summer.

In an ironic twist, even Obama got hacked recently. Organising for America, the non-profit that operates his social media profiles, found that a vulnerability in a link shortening account had been exploited by a Syrian group loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime.

They proudly announced their handiwork, with screenshots, including those of email accounts of Obama camp workers. One subject header read: "Re: help with linking events on my.bo."

That vanity URL left a distinctive smell of its own, even as the stench of the administration's worldwide snooping got so overpowering that Congress is reviewing how intelligence is collected.

October ended with the celebration of Halloween in North America, when costumed children venture out trick-or-treating. For American spooks with their ghosts in everyone's machines, everyday is Halloween. You got tricked? It's their treat.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal