The Emperor and his vassals: Obama and the Surveillance State

Jakob Augstein, in his column in the German weekly Der Spiegel, has written a penetrating analysis of Obama’s posturing and fine wordsmithing on the issue of U.S. surveillance of communications throughout the world.

Augstein cuts right through to the heart of the matter. At least in the area of spying and surveillance, Barack Obama has arrogated to himself the full powers of an absolute monarch, here an Emperor overseeing a vast realm. In exchange for loyalty, he provides security to his vassals and supporters, such as Germany and other European countries, the United States, and their citizens. His actions, like those of an absolute monarch, are unchecked by constitutional constraints such as those imposed on English kings since the Magna Carta in 1215.

Augstein notes that Obama, in addition to his speech on January 17, also gave a TV interview to the German ZDF network. He writes:

Before the speech and the interview, commentators had speculated on who the speaker would be: the Commander-in-Chief, or the civil rights lawyer? That was a misunderstanding. Here, a Ruler has spoken to his subjects. And the subjects, they are all of us….

In the interview with ZDF Barack Obama let a sentence slip out which contains more truth than the presidential press office can be happy with: “The President of the United States is not the great Emperor (Kaiser) of the whole world, but only a human being, a little wheel (cog) in this machine.” If one believes he has to speak this sentence, in truth he thinks the opposite, and this also fits the speech and the interview. In all the smart and friendly words there was only one message that sticks: The USA can do things which others cannot do, and when it considers it appropriate, it will do these things.”

Such are the views of Jakob Augstein, one of Germany’s leading commentators, in his current column in Der Spiegel.

See Jakob Augstein, “Obamas PR-Offensive: Der Kaiser und seine Vasallen; Präsident Obamas Rede und sein Interview im ZDF waren eindeutig: Die USA erheben Anspruch auf die digitale Herrschaft über den Planeten. Höchste Zeit, dass Deutschland und Europa aus der digitalen Krabbelgruppe kommen und lernen, auf eigenen Füßen zu stehen,” Der Spiegel, 20. Januar 2014 (13:05 Uhr).

For now, the column is available only in German. However, it can be read in different languages including English through Google translator, and should become available eventually on the English-language website of Der Spiegel.

The article merits a close reading and careful reflection.

For an earlier article by the same author on related subjects, in English, see:

Jakob Augstein (commentary), “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism: Europe Must Protect Itself from America,” Der Spiegel (English), June 17, 2013.

It all sounds preposterous, kind of beyond belief. Yet those who have followed these issues closely know that it is not preposterous, and not beyond belief. We have learned a great deal about U.S. spying and surveillance activities in the last year.

To understand what is going on, still, we must look beyond the clever lawyer-like language in Obama’s speeches and statements, to his actions, and to what the United States is actually doing on the ground–and in the air, and on and under the oceans.

Then, we must measure these actions against the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which establishes the following:

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Trenchant Observer
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The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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