U.S.-German Relations Are Bad Thanks to the NSA Revelations. We Need to Fix That.

Military analysis.
July 11 2014 4:25 PM

Angela Merkel Is Very Angry

In expelling the CIA station chief in Berlin, she’s sending a serious message to Obama.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants the U.S. to know that she's serious.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is shocked, shocked, that there’s spying going on in her country.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Her reaction may be purely theatrical, but the crisis it’s sown is serious. After discovering that an official in her intelligence service had been selling documents to the Americans (this in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency intercepts of her cellphone conversations), Merkel expelled the CIA’s station chief in Berlin—an extraordinary action, rarely taken even by enemies and almost never by friends.

Merkel, a shrewd politician with East German roots, is surely aware of the hypocrisy going on, especially since she first expressed her shock while hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose cyberspying in all realms, against all countries, matches and in some cases exceeds the NSA’s. (Reciprocating Xi’s visit, Merkel is now in China on a trade expedition.)

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As James Kirchick, a Berlin-based journalist, writes in the Daily Beast, “Ever since its postwar rebirth as the divided city at the geographic and intellectual heart of the Cold War, Berlin has been a nest of spies.” The nest still thrives. If you were looking for a single spot to spy on Russians, Muslim jihadists, Iranians (including Western businesses doing illicit business with Iran), and carriers of intel on just about every threat worth watching on the planet, Berlin is your place—and the choice locales include the parliament and ministries. This is well known.

Apparently, in this latest case, the German intel official wasn’t recruited by Americans; rather, he approached them and offered caches of confidential documents for a fee. The American spies paid him a bit, for a while; when he turned useless, they threw him away. He then offered his services to the Russians—at which point German counterintelligence officers, who were routinely spying on Russian officials in their country (the shock! the horror!), saw what he was doing and arrested him. (It was then that he revealed his American connection.)

Is it shocking that we were paying a greedy fool to spy for us? No, most people who betray their country for money aren’t very bright. Is it contemptible that we took the offer to begin with? Well, this is what spies in a foreign country do—they spy on the foreign country. And it’s hard to turn away an asset who shows up at your doorway.

Still, German-American relations are in a downward spiral, and it’s easy to trace the chronology: the revelation about Merkel’s cellphone, the slew of news stories about NSA intrusions worldwide, all set against a deep cultural revulsion toward government surveillance, stemming from dread memories of living under the Gestapo and Stasi.

Even some hardcore, high-ranking ex-intelligence officials that I’ve talked with the past year wonder whether the intelligence gained from these practices is worth the political alienation—not just from a country’s population but also, after a while, from its intelligence services. These intel veterans say it might be time to reassess the standards and criteria for spying on allies.

There’s a fascinating bit deep down in today’s New York Times story about the growing U.S.-German rift. After the first Snowden revelations last year, German officials asked the Obama White House for a “no spy” agreement similar to the deal that the United States has long had with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Times reports, paraphrasing American officials involved in the negotiations, “that German officials blanched when they heard what kind of responsibilities they would have for intelligence collection and cyber-operations around the world if they ever joined their elite club.”

In other words (and the Times story makes this point clearer than most accounts of the “five-eyes” club), the price for joining—and thus avoiding the eyes and ears of one another’s spy agencies—is to help spy on the rest of the world and to share the data collected, when asked. It’s unclear from the story which part of the arrangement made the Germans blanch—spying on the rest of the world or sharing the fruits with others. In any case, they had no interest. In fact, the Times reports that, after the ill-fated discussions, German politicians, including Merkel, “began talking about creating a ‘Germany only’ segment of the Internet, to keep German emails and web searches from going across American-owned wires and networks.”

If Merkel and her Cabinet are really pursuing this project, they will soon find it’s a pipe dream. The glory and the nightmare of the “World Wide Web” is that it is worldwide; it’s ultimately all one network—which is why a declaratory exclusion or exemption from the network’s pluckings is impractical, regardless of ethical or political factors.

Some in the intelligence world think that Merkel is grandstanding for the local crowd; she knows, they say, that expelling a station chief is, in a way, self-destructive. Hosting an American spymaster is a double-edged sword: Yes, he can engage in skullduggery, but he can also share much useful intelligence—pried from sources far and wide—about common interests and enemies.

What’s clear is that Merkel wanted to send a message to the CIA, NSA, and President Obama that they’ve gone too far, ignored her pleas for too long, and waved away her country’s politics too slightingly. Expelling the station chief sends an alarm-siren signal precisely because it inflicts damage on her as well. She’s telling our top officials that she’s willing to take the pain if that’s what it takes to get the message across. She’s saying, in the most diplomatically brutal way she can muster, that she’s serious. They should listen and figure out a way to solve the problem.

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