President Barack Obama walks with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel toward...

President Barack Obama walks with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel toward a group photo outside of the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg. (Sept. 6, 2013) Credit: AP

Why on earth was the United States bugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal cellphone? Why would the Obama team risk upsetting one of the president's closest allies? For what - some tattle on trade talks? Surely not for inside dope on combatting terror, given that Germany is one of our closest partners in that fight.

The senselessness of the Merkel cell tap - which started in 2002 under George W. Bush, and was recently revealed by leaker Edward Snowden - shows how careless Washington has become about the collection of intelligence data. This was a case of the intelligence bureaucracy running on automatic pilot, without adequate political supervision.

We see the result.

"Over the last decade, our technological capacity has grown so much that the bureaucracy has gotten really out of control," says Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress.

An obsession with technology parallels our lack of critical human intelligence in places such as Syria or Afghanistan. "We don't have the personnel to understand what is going on with the Syrian opposition on the ground," says Katulis, "yet we're debating the taping of allied leaders. This should be a wake-up call" about the need to think more strategically about intelligence collection, and how to supervise it.

I agree.

Don't get me wrong. I recognize the need for extensive intelligence collection to combat terrorist threats from abroad, which are growing again as U.S. troops quit Afghanistan and the Middle East implodes.

And, yes, we know that close allies often spy on each other. (One has only to recall Jonathan Pollard, a civilian intel analyst at the Pentagon, who is serving a life sentence for passing classified info to one of our closest allies, Israel.) Moreover, the furor in Europe over claims that a U.S. spy agency amassed phone records of millions of Spaniards and Frenchmen - claims also based on revelations by Snowden - appears based on false info. Top U.S. intelligence officials say those phone records were collected by European intelligence services in war zones and outside their borders and shared with the National Security Agency (NSA) in support of military operations.

In other words, they do it, too, and often share it with us.

Yet the tapping of Merkel reveals something deeply disturbing: how careless Washington has become about data collection. We are amassing data because we can, not because we must.

Merkel's personal outrage at finding her phone tapped is not (as some Washington cynics claim) merely political theater. She grew up in East Germany, where the secret police, known as the Stasi, were notorious for spying on every aspect of people's lives.

After the Berlin Wall fell, many East Germans were horrified to find out that their friends and relations, under pressure from the Stasi, had spied on them and passed on personal details. A few years ago, I visited the former Stasi archives in Berlin - where citizens can now look at the files that the Stasi compiled on them; I watched one man weep as he finally learned who had betrayed him.

No wonder Merkel was outraged to learn that the tapping operation was conducted out of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gate, where Obama gave his famous 2008 speech to then-adoring Germans. What a betrayal of trust.

Yet no one at the White House seems to have foreseen the problem. Obama's aides say he didn't know about the spying on Merkel. Really? Didn't they know? Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also complained that no one told her either. So who's minding the store? Of course, the same question is being asked on a larger scale since Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA's collection of metadata at home - including vast troves of Americans' phone and e-mail records. Yes, there are safeguards to (supposedly) ensure that none of the content of those calls or e-mails is examined without a special court order.

But, if Merkel's phone could be tapped for years without White House or congressional notice, one must ask whether there is adequate supervision of the intelligence bureaucracy. Even a security hawk like U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), who introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, says America needs to rethink the balance between privacy and security.

In 2006, a think-tanker named Denis McDonough coauthored a report for the Center for American Progress subtitled "Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken." McDonough is now White House chief of staff and might want to revisit the topic. He might also want to ensure that, in the near future, the NSA isn't tapping the cellphones of close foreign allies.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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