European critics react to proposed NSA changes

January 18, 2014 at 4:10 PM EDT
In his speech on Friday, President Obama discussed how the U.S. will change its intelligence gathering practices. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Geoff Dyer, Foreign Policy correspondent at the Financial Times, about the speech and how it was received by American allies, especially those targeted by the NSA’s operations.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: You might have heard yesterday about changes to America’s intelligence gathering procedures. Tonight we want to examine how that announcement is playing overseas. particularly among American allies. As you’ll recall, some of them, including German Chancellor Angela Merkle, were targeted by American spy operations. For more we’re joined now from Washington with Geoff Dyer, Foreign Policy correspondent of the Financial Times. Thanks for joining us. So, I guess the initial reaction to President Obama’s speech, what are you hearing?

GEOFF DYER: Well, it seems to be a cautious welcome. It’s a welcome because this is actually the first time the president has really raised, addressed some of the concerns that people in Europe and Latin America had by the way the NSA was collecting data on ordinary citizens. There’s been almost this slightly bizarre, parallel conversation going on throughout this whole debate. In the U.S., politicians have been focused on the question of whether or not Americans rights have been violated or not. And that’s absolutely appropriate, that’s what they should be focused on, that’s their constitutional responsibility. But that did give the impression to lots of people around the world, there was almost a free for all on non-Americans. Their emails and their text messages were just fair game. So by addressing some of those concerns in the speech, that was really the first time the president had done that. But it’s a cautious welcome because there was very little real detail or substance in there. A lot of that’s gonna be fleshed out in the weeks and months ahead, and so I think people who are focused on this issue are going to be watching very closely to see the actual specifics of what the White House outlines for them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now what are the feelings in Germany? I mean they sort of seemed to take it much worse because their prime minister was, or their chancellor, was bugged or tapped. I mean, do they see the relationship between the United States and Germany affected adversely because of this?

GEOFF DYER: Certainly that was the country in Europe that this issue got the most attention, where tempers were raised the most. I think those were the two different levels to it. There’s the political level — this is now the basis for the U.S. to have a much deeper conversation with the German government, with the German Chancellor Merkel to discuss what it is the NSA does and how it’s going to change going forward. And this will give the U.S. a chance to start to try and calm things down and repair some of the damage to the relationship. But then there’s also the popular level as well. There’s a lot of people, a lot of public opinion has been outraged by this. I think some people in countries like Germany listen to this speech will be pleased by it, they will think you know that that’s a good start, but there is gonna be a whole section of the population who’s basically offended by the basic idea of this mass collection and will not be persuaded just because the president’s putting a few more safe guards here and there on what actually happens to the data. they will think that it’s the common core underlying collection of the data that is the issue and those sorts of people will not really be persuaded by the speech.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about President Obama’s standing? What’s happened to his popularity or favorability ratings in Europe?

GEOFF DYER: Well, more broadly his popularity has fallen quite a bit in the last few years. I mean he obviously got a hero’s welcome when he first became president, even before he became president in lots of bits of Europe. But even before the NSA scandal he’d seen that dip off. Some of these things, like drones, are very controversial in parts of Europe. And so that’s one of the underlying difficulties he has, because there was one of the core bits of this speech was essentially a claim by President Obama to say ‘trust me, I understand this is an issue, I’m going to get it under control.’ That sort of pitch about trust me, might have worked in Europe three, four years ago, but has much less resonance now given that he has much less popularity and less influence than he did.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And finally, one of the things that President Obama was stressing yesterday is, you know, so much for the criticism, a lot of these countries actually use our intel to keep their own people safe.

GEOFF DYER: Oh, absolutely. And you know we have to be aware there is very much a double game going on here. I mean there is genuine outrage, but some of these governments are also playing an angle too. I mean they want, in some ways they want the U.S. to spy personally on them less, but to give them more information, to give them more heads up about things the NSA is finding out about people in their country or threats to their country. So there is absolutely they are playing an angle here, but it’s not completely hypocrisy, there’s genuine popular anger at some of these issues as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right Geoff Dyer from the Financial Times, thanks so much.

GEOFF DYER: My Pleasure.