It was 08:36 on Monday 30 September 2013 and I was standing at the check-in counter of American Airlines in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, due to catch flight AA 238 to Miami. From there I was to get the connecting flight number AA 1391 to Denver, Colorado, where I was taking part in a conference of North American scholars of German literature. When the airline employee entered my name she paused for a moment, got up and without explanation disappeared behind a door. Shortly afterwards she returned with a person obviously of higher rank, who informed me in rapid Portuguese and then equally quickly in English that, due to “Border Crossing Security”, they were obliged to notify the American authorities immediately upon my arrival at the airport. She asked if she could take my passport in that polite tone of voice that leaves one with no alternative but to say yes, and withdrew.
National Security Operations Center floor in 2012. Source: Wikipedia
After waiting for a few minutes I asked the employee at the check-in counter whether all non-Brazilian nationals had to undergo this special check. The woman answered in the negative. “Your case is special”, she said enigmatically. Twenty minutes later – by now I was the sole passenger still at the counter – I asked how often these kinds of checks had to be carried out. “Not often”, said the woman bluntly, “about once a month”.
No reason, no comment
Shortly afterwards another employee appeared with my passport in hand and told the woman at the counter to take my data. She asked me for a valid ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). I handed here the print-out confirming my ESTA status (“Authorization approved”) and the payment of the fee. The woman typed in the application number and then attempted to ascertain my nationality. For the first time I became aware that German passports are only cosmopolitan in the small print on the back page: “Germany”, “Allemagne”. Our authorities obviously assume that the word “Deutschland” is recognized globally.
Forty-five minutes before departure the microphone crackled, the decision on my case was made known, and the woman told me abruptly and without emotion that my entry into the United States had been denied. No reason given. I was told I should go to the embassy and apply for a visa there. Like other employees of American Airlines, she was poorly informed: there is no American Embassy in Salvador da Bahia and anyway, a visa application like this takes weeks. This wasn’t an option, then. Indeed, the advice sounded almost like mockery.
One of the most important and ominous aspects of the NSA scandal is the secretive essence of the system. Transparency is clearly the biggest enemy of the alleged guardians of freedom. The previous year, the American consulate in Munich had initially, during the personal interview, refused to grant a working visa allowing me to take up a guest professorship at the University of Washington. Only after protests from the university and a significant delay was I eventually issued the visa, by which time a good part of the term had been wasted. Then, too, no reasons were provided, no comment, no explanation. Whenever I called, I was told it was being checked, no one knew how long it would take. And no, no information could be given about why I was showing up on the authorities’ radar.
Revenge for my protest?
To be sure, my case is neither particularly exceptional nor a one-off incident – I’m just a number in the workings of a gigantic state apparatus with countless such cases to deal with. However that’s precisely what’s revealing. Over the last few years I’ve published numerous articles and essays about national and international surveillance structures, as well as a book on the subject, co-authored with Juli Zeh, entitled “Freedom under Attack” (Angriff auf die Freiheit, 2009). I was recently among the initiators of an open letter to Angela Merkel (published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 26 July 2013); on the 18 September, the 63,000 and more signatures to the letter – to which we never received a reply, I might add – were ceremonially presented to the German government in Berlin by several of the authors involved, drawing considerable media attention. The number of signatures has since risen to 70,000.
At the time I was in Rio de Janeiro, where the critical American journalist Glenn Greenwald, fearing massive intimidation and even arrest in his home country, has chosen to work. One of the first things I saw in Brazil was the remarkable magazine cover of Obama as Terminator (“OBAMACOP”). The first news I was confronted with was a report on “TV Globo” about how the NSA had gained access to business networks, including the Brazilian oil company Petrobrás. In Brazil it was refreshing to be spared the tired rhetoric about the defence of human rights and protection from terrorism and instead to hear some straight talking, both in the media and in conversations: economic espionage, power interests and a rampant secret police. Only a week ago, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff expressed clear words of warning before the UN general assembly (the only head of state to do so).
It is more than ironic that an author who for years has been speaking out about the dangers of surveillance and the secret state within the state should be denied entry in the “land of the brave and the free”. No more than a minor, individual case, to be sure: but it’s indicative of the consequences of a disastrous development and it reveals the naivety of the attitude of many citizens who comfort themselves with the mantra, “But it’s got nothing to do with me”. That might still be the case, however the net is tightening. For these citizens the secret services are still just a rumour, however in the not so distant future the knock on the door will be very real indeed.