Many American allies are still seething over the steady stream of revelations about the depth and breadth of the National Security Agency’s surveillance network. None is more upset than Germany.
German outrage was simmering even before reports in late October that the NSA had targeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. After, it boiled over. Merkel called President Obama to confront him over the spying. American officials were summoned to the Bundestag (the German parliament), and German intelligence came to the White House to complain. Wells of trust built up since the end of the Cold War quickly ran dry. And according to reports in a German newspaper this week, the spying continues: An anonymous NSA employee told the German publication Bild am Sonntag that the United States is now monitoring Merkel’s advisers. Obama, who in 2008 was greeted as a hero by hundreds of thousands of people during his first European speech in Berlin, is now considered by many to be a villain.
On the other hand, a survey conducted by public broadcaster ARD and Die Welt newspaper shows that six out of 10 Germans consider Edward Snowden, the man responsible for opening the rift between their country and the United States, a hero. Only 14 percent believe Snowden is a criminal. He’s met with Green politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, who passed a letter from Snowden to Merkel. Snowden has also offered to testify in front of German parliament on NSA security practices, an offer the Bundestag is still mulling over.
In the four months since the Merkel-cellphone dustup, Germany has taken a number of steps to better secure its data from the prying eyes of the NSA. Last week Merkel announced that she is backing proposals from German companies like Deutsche Telekom, which have offered to create data networks meant to keep Europe’s data in Europe. Right now the majority of European data travels through American servers, making it susceptible to NSA surveillance. She also revealed plans to launch a broad counterespionage offensive against the United States and the United Kingdom.
“We will, above all, discuss which European providers we have who offer security for our citizens,” Merkel said on her weekly podcast recently. “So that you don’t have to go across the Atlantic with emails and other things, but can build up communications networks also within Europe.”
Germany would like the world to believe in a simple narrative regarding privacy and surveillance: Unlike the NSA, Germany does not spy on its citizens, and it respects privacy rights.
But, like most things in Germany, it’s more complicated than that. Germany does monitor citizens and foreign nationals living within its borders—it just does so quietly. German intelligence officials meet regularly with American counterparts and share information on domestic and international threats. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution), and its foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service), then use this information to police extremist activities within their borders.
German security services keep their work quiet in large part because of German history. In the last century, Germans were subject to surveillance from two of the most ruthless groups in modern history: the Nazis and then the Stasi, the Soviet secret police in East Germany. One of the reasons Merkel was so incensed by being targeted by NSA surveillance is that she grew up under the Stasi’s watch in East Germany. The fact that her American and British allies were doing the same thing made it all the more insulting—to her and to her compatriots.
Germans also have a conflicted relationship with war and threats to their homeland. When it comes to both, Germany is a nation with its collective blinders on. Germany is constitutionally prohibited from fighting an offensive war, yet its troops have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan for more than a decade. And despite the fact that polls show more than 50 percent of Germans view Islam as a threat to the German way of life, few approve of the surveillance methods used to stop extremism.
The most glaring fact that Germans ignore is how much their government works with the NSA. Reports last summer in Der Spiegel—ironically, the same magazine that published some of the first NSA-Snowden accusations—indicated that Germany and the NSA work closely, and that German intelligence services were eager and willing to work with the Americans. (You can read the details of the extent of cooperation here.)