Germany -- To tell Americans that they enjoy lots of personal freedoms is not terribly original, but Americans love it when you tell them so. It also happens to be true.
It is the first observation a citizen from a European welfare state makes upon entering the United States: The U.S. state has a comparatively moderate presence in the life of the individual. Well, great, I thought and soon discovered a remarkable exception. My data are everywhere. Nobody protects me from hungry collectors of personal information. Only here in the U.S. have I learned to fully appreciate a German Supreme Court opinion that put forth the individual's right to "informational self-determination" and defined its reach. The opinion basically says: My data are mine. Companies and governments and doctors and employers can't just use my computerized data, network them, and forward them to whomever they please. American companies in Germany hate it when they have to respect German data privacy laws. They can't find out how much I paid for my house. They won't even find census data telling them how many bathrooms the homes in my neigborhood tend to have. They can't just transfer a German employee's file to the U.S. Too bad for them. But I like it. My data are mine. Democracy is hard. Hard on businesses. Hard on government. If I had fewer individual rights it would be easier for them to operate.
So, let me be very German when I assess Bush's meddling with my bank acount: Keep your fingers out, Mr. President!
If I'm not mistaken I can already hear a roar of protest: A terrorist's friend! A European appeaser! Hasn't even gotten it a full five years after 9-11! I hear you. Let me tell you: I'm from Hamburg where Mohammed Atta created his terrorist cell. On my way from work I used to walk by the mosque where he and his friends prayed - and plotted their attack.
So let me be be clear: the financiers of death need to be found. For that purpose law enforcement needs tools to track financial transactions. These tools and also the limits of their use are well established in the Western World (and, maybe, in Germany we might emphasize the limits of their use a little more). They include: a lawful and public process to introduce the program; no fishing expedition, but probable cause; authorization by a judge; judicial and parliamentary oversight. At this point it appears as if Bush did few of these things. An administrative subpoena seems of have been all that was necessary. The program was not presented in the light of day and those journalists who brought it out into the open are accused of disregarding national security. In the end, the most farreaching oversight is apparently conducted by the law firm Booz Allen Hamilton which is entrusted with the accounting. Does anybody seriously belief those are sufficient saveguards?
Given this lack of procedural checks I have to believe that my Hamburg bank account might have been targeted. Did my government agree without letting me know? Or did Mr. Bush just coerce a Brusseles based Bank cooperative into cooperation? And by the way: What about the old Westfalian principle of national sovereignty?
It looks as if the President of a foreign country might have violated my cherished right to informational self-determination.
Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.