The brouhaha over our tapping Angela Merkel’s phone is an embarrassing moment for all concerned but needs to be put in perspective. When the NSA started tapping her phone in 2002 (N.B. to Teahadists: Dubya was President), Angela Merkel was a rising star in German politics. She had, however, held relatively important posts in the old East German government. Considering that she seemed destined for bigger things in West German politics, and the paucity of public information on her, the NSA would have been derelict had it not tried to find out all it could via any means possible. That’s what security services do: gather information. When Ms. Merkel became chancellor in 2004, the NSA’s phone taps no doubt provided important insights into the mind and personality of one of our more important foreign interlocutors. Ditto for the phone of Francois Hollande.
Unfortunately, the Merkel and Hollande phone taps illustrate a fundamental problem for our democracy. The intelligence services (17 of them, I believe) and the Pentagon, have so much power, so much money that no President can control them or even know much of what they do. During my years in Washington, I saw presidents come and go; upon taking office, they all made noises about “cutting back” on the size of the bureaucracy. The efficacy of their entreaties recalled the proverbial push on the Jell-O bowl: the moment you remove your finger, the Jell-O goes back to its original position. There was only one exception: Clinton, through his “Re-Inventing Government” initiative administered by Al Gore, actually shrank the number of civilian government employees by over one million. Reagan, Carter and both Bushes added new employees, and to the deficit. I realize that this runs counter to the Saint Reagan narrative, but it’s a fact.
Although I do not like the idea that Big Brother can spy on any of us at any time, I don’t think we can do anything about it. Private industry is eager to invent new, and ever more expensive, toys for the military and intelligence communities. And legislators, especially in the GOP, are ever more eager to acquiesce to those wants, needed or not. As former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder once said: “Republicans never met a weapons system they did not like.”