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Silence is no answer

The United States cannot go on declining to explain its espionage practices

Four months after the first revelations about the US National Security Agency’s massive espionage campaign on various types of communications, Barack Obama’s government cannot go on using the strategy of stonewall refusal and obstruction over what has been revealed to be a scandalous and enormous violation of individual rights. On Wednesday night German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed this out to Obama herself in a telephone conversation, underlining that these practices are unacceptable. On Thursday night the 28 leaders of European Union member states agreed to a statement demanding a new basis for cooperation on security with the US government.

Now we know that the programs used by the NSA not only enable it to monitor computers and intercept email communications; they have also been applied to telephone lines. Merkel herself suspects that her own cellphone calls have been picked up.

Whatever may be said in their defense to the effect that the telephone trawls were made with judicial authorization under the controversial Patriot Act, it is hard to accept the proposition that the struggle against terrorism justifies the need to monitor millions of messages passing between citizens of other countries. An elementary sense of proportionality makes it highly improbable that, in a hypothetical search for terrorist cells, the espionage services have monitored the computers of personalities such as the presidents of Mexico and Brazil, or the French diplomatic delegations in Washington and the United Nations.

In the escalating parade of revelations, we have also learned that the Spanish secret services take it for granted that our country has been the object of illicit monitoring of private communications. The demand for explanations has so far received the same evasive answers as have been given to the other affected countries. This is not acceptable conduct among allies.

The embarrassment generated by this matter in the governments concerned and in the European Commission explains why their reaction has so far oscillated between indifference and hypocrisy, in part because most countries have a great deal to hide concerning their own espionage services. But the dimensions of the case make it hard to bear the disdain with which Washington treats these allies in declining to offer any reply to repeated demands for explanations.

The European Parliament, the institution that has so far been most active in defending the rights of the citizen, but at the same time the one least empowered to impose its views, has asked that banking data not be sent to the United States if the latter cannot guarantee a legal framework in line with the principles of a democratic state. This is no more than a gesture, but Obama would do well not to ignore it.