After a brief relief provided by congressional Republicans during the debt ceiling debate, US President Barack Obama has again found himself handling a snowballing international outcry over US global surveillance operations.
Media outlets last week alleged that the US monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile telephone, basing their claims on secret files from the US National Security Agency (NSA) leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Obama called Merkel to reassure her that "we do not, and will not, monitor the chancellor's communications." The press was quick to point out that past practices were not addressed in his comments. The US president, on the other hand, defended himself by claiming that he did not know about wiretapping conducted on world leaders.
The chancellor is pushing Washington to agree on a "no spying" deal with Berlin and Paris by year-end. Obama is reportedly mulling further moves to ban spying on all allied heads of state.
The news hit home yesterday as Presidential Office Secretary-General and former Foreign Minister Timothy Yang responded to an allegation that the US also operates a surveillance station in Taiwan. Yang told lawmakers at a Legislative Yuan meeting that Taiwanese national security officials will "understand and handle" the situation. Yang said that he and his colleagues use secured landlines to communicate when they are inside the Presidential Office. At the same meeting, National Security Council (NSC) Deputy Secretary-General Lu Hsiao-jung (陸小榮) said he personally does not consent to the US setting up and maintaining a surveillance station in Taiwan.
These allegations of top-level global surveillance by the NSA may seem like an escalation of practices first exposed by Snowden earlier this year. In truth, however, they are but sideshows to the real danger of the US' spying overreach against the people.
The shock and indignation shown by world leaders in response to these revelations of US spying operations, as well as Obama's protestations of innocence, are most likely a show for the public. It would be ludicrous to suggest that a US president would know nothing about the NSA's monitoring of foreign heads of state. An unnamed former White House official was quoted by Foreign Policy magazine as saying that it is impossible for a US president not to know of such wiretapping arrangements.
It would be equally ridiculous for the leaders of major economies such as Germany to profess ignorance of spying operations against them.