President Obama went to Berlin in 2008 as a presidential candidate and was greeted like a rock star, drawing a crowd of 200,000 for speech. He returned to Germany’s capital last week to speak at the historic Brandenburg Gate and the crowd was 4,500, fewer even than the 6,000 tickets distributed.
The shrunken turnout no doubt reflected the loss of the novelty and expectations that surrounded his 2008 candidacy, a feeling that was particularly strong in parts of Europe that had no love for George W. Bush. But Obama’s muted reception in the city John F. Kennedy electrified with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech 50 years ago this week seemed to be about more than his fading stardom.
Those who had come to hear Obama five years ago this time delivered a speech to him. It was an oration spoken by their absence. The man who once promised openness and change came to them burdened by a controversy over domestic and international surveillance. It was a controversy heaped upon his earlier anti-terrorism actions that had troubled many in Europe, his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and his use of drones in execute Taliban leaders and al Qaida terrorists.
Americans have tolerated such steps in the name of the war on terror. But the Germans are less inclined to trust government leaders who bend principles and the law in the name of national security. They have known the Nazis and endured the omniscient surveillance of Communist East Germany. They have lost freedom and regained it. They know how easily it can slip away even in an enlightened and democratic country.
Perhaps Obama heard the Germans’ silent “nein” to his use of secretive state programs in the name of fighting terrorism, his troubling new version of “Yes we can.” But he doesn’t seem to be affected by it. He seems unfazed by the dangers of secrecy in a democracy. It’s as if he doesn’t grasp how much his involvement with and defense of secrecy is dimming his appeal abroad and staining his legacy at home.
Obama declared an end to the war on terror in a speech at the National Defense University on May 23. He was right to say a free nation cannot be always on a war footing. But even as he calls for a return to normalcy, he continues to show an obsession with stopping leaks and defending the vast and shadowy government networks developed after Sept. 11, 2001.
Now the U.S. government has charged Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked agency documents, with violations of the Espionage Act and moved to extradite him from his refuge in Hong Kong. The move will put the United States in the bizarre position of negotiating with repressive and secretive China for the extradition of a man some say struck a blow for government openness in exposing the extent of U.S. domestic and international surveillance programs.
The aggressive posture toward Snowden reflects Obama’s preoccupation with leaks. The charges mark the seventh time in which a government employee has been charged with leaking classified information to the news media.
Meanwhile, McClatchy reporters Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay reported last week that even before the Snowden case the Obama administration was pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats.
The initiative known as the Insider Threat Program extends beyond security agencies to most federal departments. It requires federal employees to be a watchful for their co-workers leaking information and report any suspicions, or be penalized themselves. Some current and former government officials worry that the Insider Threat Program will discourage whistleblowing and impede the public’s right to know.
Obama keeps saying the right things about protecting civil liberties and doing the opposite. It is a contradiction that threatens to become his legacy.
When he spoke in Berlin, Obama stood in the light and the echo of Kennedy’s speech there. It was a tense standoff between freedom and Communism then as it is now between freedom and oppressors who engage in terrorism. Kennedy told a crowd of 400,000 what he might tell Obama privately now: “...lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today to the hopes of tomorrow.”
To be realized, those hopes will require a commitment to openness and civil liberties, not secrecy and surveillance.