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Obama Admin Faces Diplomatic Uproar as Massive Surveillance of EU Governments, Citizens Exposed

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While National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been holed up at a Moscow airport, news outlets are continuing to report on his leaks of classified U.S. documents. The latest disclosures have revealed the NSA spied on European Union offices in Brussels, Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations, as well as on more than 38 embassies and missions. The latest documents also point to a major NSA spy operation targeting European citizens. According to the news agency Der Spiegel, some 500 million unique communications are monitored in Germany alone each month, the most of any European country. For more, we speak with Malte Spitz, a German Green Party politician and privacy advocate. Spitz has his own personal history with unwanted surveillance: He went to court to obtain the information that his cellphone operator, Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s parent company, gathered about his activity, and later published it for the public to see. He authored a New York Times op-ed, “Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him.” We’re also joined by Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesperson and Icelandic investigative journalist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

Over the weekend, the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed the NSA spied on European Union offices in Brussels, Washington and at the United Nations. The NSA allegedly planted bugs to listen in on conversations and phone calls, also hacked into the EU computer network to access emails.

To talk about these NSA spying revelations in Europe, we’re joined by Malte Spitz. He’s a member of the German Green Party’s executive committee and a candidate for the Bundestag, the German parliament, in Germany’s national election in September. The piece he wrote in The New York Times, an op-ed, is headlined, “Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him.” Still with us, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesperson for WikiLeaks, investigative journalist from Iceland.

Malte, welcome to Democracy Now! You’re joining us from Berlin. What is the response to these latest revelations? The countries we’re talking about the U.S. spying on, and the European organizations like the European Union, are allies of the United States.

MALTE SPITZ: Yes. There are, since already four days, no other news than the spying of the U.S. on Germany and also on EU institutions, because politicians from all political parties are somehow afraid and also shocked by the situation that the U.S. is spying so hard on German citizens, but also on EU institutions and EU countries. And so, there is a huge confusion in Germany, and also lots of people are quite angry.

AARON MATÉ: Speaking on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed President Obama’s comments downplaying reports of U.S. spying on the EU. Kerry said spying on friendly governments, quote, “is not unusual.”

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security, and all kinds of information contributes to that. And all I know is that that is not unusual for lots of nations.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Malte Spitz, did these spying revelations come as a surprise to you?

MALTE SPITZ: Not that much, because already it is known that the U.S. is spying all over the world, but what is also new for me is the amount of spying, if Der Spiegel numbers are correct that there are 500 million individual communication acts spied on here in Germany each month. And I think this is an amount where you can’t talk about war on terror; it’s just a huge part of espionage on the German government, on the German citizens and also on the German companies. So I think there is no sense of proportionality any longer, if the U.S. secret agencies are spying so hard on a so-called friend and ally. And I think that Foreign Minister Kerry isn’t right if he says that this is something normal, because you don’t spy on friends, you only spy on your enemy. And if Germany and if the EU is an enemy for the U.S., then they should say that.

AMY GOODMAN: Malte Spitz, if you could talk about your own quite remarkable story, about how you got the metadata on you?

MALTE SPITZ: Yeah. I started a lawsuit against the Deutsche Telekom, which is the largest phone company here in Germany, around four years ago, and I asked them that they should hand me over all the information they have stored on me. And at the beginning, they only wanted to hand me over just regular informations like my address and something like this. But I said that they also have to store all this so-called metadata. And so I started a suit against them to get handed out all this metadata they have stored about me. And at the end, it was six months of—with around 35,000 informations. So the Deutsche Telekom knew 35,000 times where I was, what I did and who I called and who I sent text messages. And after a while, I decided to publish all this information, because it was important for me to show the public that even if you only have so-called metadata, it only—it is also showing a really large part of your social life, because you can—

AMY GOODMAN: Malte, if you could talk about this map that you made? We were just showing it; we’re going to show it again. And for radio listeners, they can go to our website at democracynow.org. This has gotten a lot of attention. The cellphone towers are very close to each other in Germany, so they have very exact information about where you are, you know, when you make these calls. It is amazing. This is over a period of, what, six months that you took the metadata and tracked yourself, your own life?

MALTE SPITZ: Yeah, it is six months of my life you can see on this map. And if you are in city centers like here in Berlin, the cellphone towers are really close to each other, so you can really track down people up to 50 meters, and so you always know where someone is. Even if you have turned off your GPS signal at your phone, they still store all this information.

AARON MATÉ: Malte, and then, based on this information, that sparked an outcry. And then, I understand, this issue went to the courts. What happened when you brought this before the law?

MALTE SPITZ: Yeah, at the same time as I filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Telekom, there was also a huge constitutional challenge against this law here in Germany. So, around 34,000 people went to the constitutional court, and in March 2010 the German constitutional court decided that its implementation of this EU directive into German law was unconstitutional. So, since 2010, there is no such storage of information of all the cellphone users, of all the Internet users, but still this debate is going on here in Germany because the two largest political parties are still in favor for such a system.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kristinn Hrafnsson, here you have this situation of metadata showing so much, and what Malte is showing us is they were doing this without the NSA, right? This was the German telecom that has all this information. What makes these NSA revelations so significant? You’re—you’ve now left being an investigative journalist in Iceland, and you go back and forth between Reykjavík and London. You work full-time for WikiLeaks. Why are these revelations that WikiLeaks has helped to reveal, or at least is now helping Edward Snowden, the whistleblower from—that worked with the NSA—why are they so significant?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Well, they are so significant because this is the kind of data we are now seeing, as mapped out for one individual, and they are being collected for millions of people, and not only the data from the telephone companies handed over, as Snowden revealed in his first leak, but also data on Internet, the email use, which also give you a location, because it’s linked to an IP address, which gives out a location, and who is where sending a message to whom. So, by putting this information together, you can, just by that metadata, so-called, get a very detailed picture of the life of an individual, without actually going into listening in the conversation or reading the messages. However, it has been said by experts and is known that it’s very hard to distinguish the actual metadata on emails, for example, and the actual messages. And it has been revealed that they have confirmed that they did not intentionally collect the content, but it’s there. And with the revelation we have now, who would trust the NSA for not looking into that?

AARON MATÉ: Well, and, of course, these revelations have led the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to apologize to Congress. In March, Clapper told Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon the NSA does not [wittingly] collect data on millions of Americans.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?


SEN. RON WYDEN: It does not?

JAMES CLAPPER: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.

AARON MATÉ: James Clapper has now admitted—has now admitted he was making false statements, and he’s apologized to lawmakers. According to The Washington Post, Clapper sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee last month saying he misunderstood the question. He said, quote, “I have thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time,” adding, “My response was clearly erroneous—for which I apologize.”

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s clearly holding his head as he is saying this, as he said he now is trying to think about what he was saying in his mind.

AARON MATÉ: Kristinn, is this something that Edward Snowden could use in making his case to the public, saying, “Look, because of my revelations, one of your top officials has been forced to admit he was lying to Congress, or at least he misspoke to Congress”?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Well, that remains to be seen. But, I mean, it’s obviously of very grave concern. And some—this is a story that I don’t see analyzed by the mainstream media here. People seem to be avoiding that serious issue of lying to Congress. And not only in the case of Clapper, it is also now known that 26 senators from both parties have demanded a clarification from General Keith Alexander of NSA in a very careful statement. I mean, they are basically saying that they were misled. So, the Congress, who is supposed to have oversight under all this cloak of secrecy, well, how can they do that when they are not getting information, that they are—when they’re lied to, when they are misled? That is not a proper function in a democratic society, is it?

AMY GOODMAN: What is going on here is quite astounding. You have this now 30-year-old, Edward Clapper [sic], who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as a consultant—Edward Snowden, who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton for the NSA in Hawaii. And now you have Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London because he can’t leave, or the British authorities say they’ll arrest him, who’s helping Edward Snowden to apply for political asylum. It’s quite amazing that these two people can take on the national security establishment of the United States and other countries. I wanted to ask you, Kristinn, why you chose to leave, you know, your job as an investigative journalist in Iceland, voted three times best one in Iceland, to work full-time for WikiLeaks? Why is this so important to you?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Well, after 25 years in the mainstream media and journalism, I was, you know, honestly, seeing that we were not doing our job as journalists, in general. We were failing the public. And, of course, we have many examples. American public know of so many examples where journalists have failed, you know, prior to the Iraq invasion in 2003. We also have examples of where the mainstream media have quashed stories because they were asked to, even media that we hold in high regard, in general—you know, The New York Times, Washington Post, for example, in this country. But the examples that we see, as well, is that the journalism has failed to be the proper watchdog to those in power, whether corporate or government power, and are too much the lapdogs, if I may say so, of those in power.

And I have to say that after spending a week here and seeing the coverage in the mainstream media here, I’m actually appalled by the—and they confirmed all my worst beliefs about what’s going on. It’s a terrible situation. I’ve seen here how the mainstream media has carefully avoided actually going into the real story, which is of course the leaks, the—what Snowden has revealed. Instead, it’s this ridiculous focus on where he is, his personal life, and even journalists have attacked journalists like Glenn Greenwald, suggested that he had aided and abetted a felon, as we see examples of, or even tried to dig up dirt on the journalist, who was doing this incredible job. So, this is a—what Snowden is revealing is not just the snooping of individuals; he’s also exposing the extremely poor condition of journalism today.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, finally, about Julian Assange and the embassy, since you are working closely with him. In President Correa’s comments, saying that there was an oversight in getting Edward Snowden these travel documents to let him leave Hong Kong, he was expressing a kind of annoyance. Now, in his comments in—quoted by Rory Carroll in The Guardian, he said—he was talking about Assange. He said, “He is in the embassy, he’s a friend of the consul, [and] he calls him at four in the morning to say they are [going] to capture Snowden. The [consul] is desperate—’how are we going to save the life of this man?’—and does it.” He also expressed respect for Julian Assange. But is—are you concerned that Correa is changing or is somewhat irritated with Julian Assange right now?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: I don’t. I don’t. I think this is overplayed. I believe that Correa was referring to procedural issues here and formalities that were possibly not carried out. I don’t—I don’t read too much into that. But I believe that Ecuador is firmly supporting Mr. Assange.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Kristinn Hrafnsson is—works with WikiLeaks, investigative journalist, named Icelandic journalist of the year three times. I also want to thank Malte Spitz, member of the German Green Party’s executive committee, candidate for the Bundestag in Germany’s national election this September. We’ll link to your piece, Malte, called “Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him.” Are you heading back, by the way, Kristinn, to London or Iceland now?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: It remains to be seen where I head.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks for joining us.


AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, Hissène Habré has been detained in Senegal. Stay with us.

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