Another Perspective

Obama’s Snitch Program: “Chicago” Politics or EU Politics?

The "Europeanization" of the U.S. continues apace.

By 8.12.09

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The Obama administration's call for Internet-users to flag "fishy" e-mails or websites opposing health-care reform legislation has sparked charges that the administration is engaging in "Chicago" politics. The use of this metaphor has gone hand in hand with speculation that the administration might use the data thus gathered to compile an "enemies list." But if one considers what the administration has actually done -- namely, to establish a sort of surveillance of public opposition to a piece of legislation it favors -- as opposed to what it might do (establish an "enemies list"), EU-style politics might be the more appropriate comparison.

Thus, in January 2005, the then so-called "EU Constitution" or, more exactly, Constitutional Treaty was moving through the ratification process and facing potential defeat in upcoming referendums in several EU member states. In order to try to defuse -- or perhaps discredit -- the increasingly evident public opposition to the treaty, a group of pro-Constitution members of the European Parliament announced that they were setting up a "rapid reaction force" to correct "distortions and misrepresentations" of the treaty.

The members of the group would serve as the "watchdogs on utterances about the Constitution," as the news site EUobserver chillingly put it, citing the head of the parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee Jo Leinen. "Within three hours, or at least within the same day, we want to react to lies and distortions about the Constitution," the German MEP told EUobserver. No "snitching" was required by members of the public themselves. Rather, the task of policing public discourse was assigned to the European Parliament offices in each of the member states, which were to "'pick up' any information they consider to be a lie and pass it back to the group."

In the press release announcing the program, Leinen noted that the "Rapid Reaction Force" was being created "to publicly counter distortions and misrepresentations of the Constitution" (emphasis in the original). And he added:

In this decisive phase, the opponents of the European idea should not be given the chance to lead their countries into isolation and a political dead-end through their opposition to the European Constitution....

(The press release is no longer available on Leinen's website, but it can still be found in saved versions of the site available in the Internet Archive.)

Both the tone and the substance of Leinen's "rapid reaction" initiative are remarkably similar to that of the Obama White House's program to flag "fishy" opposition. (See the White House announcement here.) At the time, the Danish euro-skeptical MEP Jens-Peter Bonde denounced the Leinen initiative as evidence of what he described as a "totalitarian tendency" in the EU. (See his remarks in the Times of London here.)

The similarities, moreover, may be more than just coincidental. One of the most active private-sector promoters of the European "Constitution" was Germany's enormously influential Bertelsmann Foundation. Thus, when the "Constitution" did indeed go down to defeat in referendums in France and the Netherlands in June 2005, it was none other than the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Bertelsmann-funded Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP) that immediately published a plan for "saving" the treaty: namely, by repackaging all its essential elements as a nominally new "Reform Treaty." This is precisely the path that the EU has subsequently taken.

The Bertelsmann Foundation is, in effect, just the openly political arm of the Bertelsmann Corporation: Europe's largest media enterprise with far-flung interests in television, newspapers, and book publishing. The Foundation holds nearly three-quarters of the shares in the Corporation, but no voting rights. The remaining shares and all voting rights are controlled by a single family: the Mohns.

Bertelsmann's influence notoriously extends directly into the European institutions and, notably, into the European parliament. Thus longtime German MEP Elmar Brok is likewise a longtime Bertelsmann employee. From 1999 to 2007, Brok served as the chair of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. Leaked internal Bertelsmann company communications identify him as the "Europe Envoy [Europa-Beauftragter] of the Board of Directors." In the meanwhile, he officially bears the more innocuous-sounding title of "Senior Vice-President for Media Development." According to German news reports from 2005, Brok is paid some €180,000 annually by Bertelsmann in addition to his salary as MEP.

As the head of the European People's Party (EPP) delegation at the EU's so-called "Constitutional Convention" in 2002-2003, Brok was a leading participant in the drafting of the Constitutional Treaty. Indeed, by his own account, his contribution was so great that he was even voted "Mister Convention." He has also been an active participant in the Constitutional Affairs Committee. His Social Democratic colleague Jo Leinen has been a regular participant at Bertelsmann-sponsored events like the Bertelsmann International Forum or the Bertelsmann European Summer Academy.

Since opening an office in Washington last year, the Bertelsmann Foundation has not hesitated to give advice to the American government as well. Thus, following last November's American presidential election it wasted no time in publishing a "Trans-Atlantic Briefing Book" for the incoming administration. (See my report on Pajamas Media here.) Bertelsmann's pretense to being able to influence American politics might seem merely quaint were it not for the fact that the Bertelsmann Corporation also has a substantial financial relationship with some key American politicians. For instance: one Barack Obama, whose publisher Random House is a 100%-owned subsidiary of Bertelsmann. According to published tax returns, from 2005 through 2008, Barack Obama was paid some $6,069,569 by Bertelsmann/Random House plus an additional $2,389,681 in what are presumably indirect payments from Bertelsmann/Random House (via literary agents Dystel & Goderich).

Part of this staggering sum is for sales of The Audacity of Hope: the 384-page volume that effectively launched Obama's drive to the presidency and that he supposedly wrote without assistance..., in less than a year-and-a-half..., and while already serving in the U.S. Senate. One is reminded of Elmar Brok's defiant response when asked by a German journalist how he managed to fulfill both his parliamentary duties and his obligations to Bertelsmann. "By working 15 to 18 hours a day," Brok said, "I make mistakes, but nobody has ever accused me of a lack of effort."

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About the Author

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. More of his work can be found at Transatlantic Intelligencer.