In May 2013, Edward Snowden took a leave of absence from his job at Dell, where he was contracted to work at the National Security Agency offices in Hawaii. He told his employers he was going to the mainland United States for epilepsy treatment, but instead he flew to Hong Kong, arriving on May 20.
Snowden took with him, and released, electronic copies of some 1.7 million classified documents, including documentation of massive NSA surveillance programs, foreign and domestic. The legality of the domestic surveillance programs remains in doubt, with two federal trial-level courts dividing on the question, and no appellate rulings to date.
The NSA’s foreign surveillance programs do not raise American constitutional questions – the American constitution does not apply to foreigners living abroad. But those programs do raise political and international relations questions.
Among the more embarrassing revelations from the Snowden documents about foreign surveillance was the long-time tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Reuters characterized Merkel’s reaction as “frosty”:
“It’s not just about me but about every German citizen. We need to have trust in our allies and partners, and this trust must now be established once again…. I repeat that spying among friends is not at all acceptable against anyone, and that goes for every citizen in Germany.”
In Merkel’s outrage, there was an edge of Captain Renault being shocked, shocked at the gambling going on in this establishment. And sure enough, the Times reported yesterday on German spying against its NATO ally, Turkey. Now it’s the Turks’ turn to be shocked, shocked, although I’m sure there are Turks working undercover in capital cities across Europe and the Middle East.
Caught up in the spying against Turkey were conversations by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, talking to Kofi Annan following his mission to Syria, and a conversation of Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, during negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Kerry lodged a complaint with the German government, although he had the grace to do so quietly, without the public bombast.
Chancellor Merkel denied that German spying on Turkey violated her rule against friends spying on friends, because her condemnation of American spying came “in a recognizable context.”
Well, that certainly explains it.