German spy scandal: Should Obama have apologized?

Europeans are once again complaining that President Obama is relying on Bush-era tactics to fight terrorism. But in apologizing, Obama did something Bush would never have done.

Thomas Peter/Reuters/File
President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel make their way to a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin earlier this year. Reports say the US tapped the chancellor's cellphone.

Not for the first time since he took office, President Obama is being accused of looking a lot like his predecessor when it comes to terrorism.

This week, the anger came from media reports detailing the scope of National Security Agency (NSA) espionage in Europe, including bugging the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a sweep of French metadata from phone calls, e-mails, and other electronic communications similar to what it has done in the US.

For a man who first took office promising change in how America treated the world, it looked like more of the same.

Already, leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had described the enormity and apparent boldness of NSA data collection programs in the US that, critics say, run roughshod over civil liberties. Abroad, Mr. Obama's drone campaign has been seen in some quarters as little more than an international assassination program. Add to that Obama's inability to persuade Congress to shut the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, and some say the current US president has been little more than "Bush lite."

Yet when Chancellor Merkel called Obama Wednesday to demand an explanation, Obama reportedly apologized, according to Der Spiegel, a German news magazine. Obama told Merkel he would have stopped the program had he known about it, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper said in its Sunday edition.

True, Obama's assertion is currently in dispute. Another German newspaper, Der Bild, reported Sunday that Obama knew of the program since 2010 but has done nothing about it.

But regardless, that apology is significant, as any Republican in Congress will tell you.

"I think the president should stop apologizing and stop being defensive," said Rep. Peter King (R) of New York on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday.

What is the significance of an apology? As Representative King knows, it signals something about how Obama wants America to be seen.

Not long after the Snowden leaks broke, the head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, sat before Congress and answered members' questions. His appearances almost had the feeling of a barnstorming tour. He wanted to present the NSA as (relatively) open and (somewhat) transparent.

During the George. W. Bush administration, by contrast, congressional hearings with administration officials were sometimes openly confrontational. The underlying message in hearings about alleged torture, for example, needed little reading between the lines. The president did what he wanted to do. Deal with it.

Of course, differences of shade and tone are not differences of policy, necessarily. But in Washington, where nearly everything is opaque to those outside government (and often to those who are in it, too), tone speaks to the inner desire of an administration.

In other words, it matters, giving at least some hint of the direction an administration might be heading – or at least wants to.

For example, in recent months Obama has curtailed America's drone strikes. That followed a May speech in which he acknowledged his discomfort with parts of the campaign. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” he said.

In that case, the tone presaged the policy.

It's impossible to say what Obama's apologetic tone on NSA revelations says about his designs for US intelligence-gathering. But it's clear that many Republicans wouldn't do business this way.

"The reality is the NSA has saved thousands of lives not just in the United States but also in France, Germany and throughout Europe," said Representative King. "We’re not doing this for the fun of it."

Perhaps not "deal with it," but the same underlying sentiment.

Merkel did not get that tone from Obama when she called, it seems.

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