Keeping tabs on your friends: the U.S.-German spying scandal

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The U.S. has been spying on Germany on a large scale: old news or genuine trouble in the transatlantic relationship?

Angela Merkel was very irritated: not because of the fact that the U.S. has been spying on Germany, but because of the scale and intensity of U.S. intelligence activities. Following the most recent reports that two German intelligence agents had allegedly been feeding information to the U.S., the German government asked the CIA’s Berlin station chief to leave the country. What are the wider implications of the incident?

German prosecutors are currently investigating two suspects that had reportedly been passing on secrets to the U.S. The first is an agent at the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the second a defense ministry employee. The current scandal is the gravest challenge to U.S.-German relations in a series of incidents over the last year that has put the transatlantic alliance to a test. Previous reports about the monitoring of communications within Germany, including the chancellor’s cell phone, had already greatly upset German politicians.

While acknowledging that every country was engaged in the global spying game, German politicians expressed deep concern over the extent of U.S. intelligence activities. Commenting on the first private conversation between chancellor Merkel and president Obama after the scandal had broken, Merkel’s spokesman Steffan Seibert emphasized the “deep differences of opinion on the issue of the activities of the U.S. intelligence services.”[i]

This raises the question whether the Germans have legitimate reasons to be aggravated. One could argue that they do. It is true that espionage—even between allies—has always been going on. However, since 9/11, the U.S. government has vastly expanded its capabilities to gather and store information, making it necessary to weigh the pros and cons of intelligence activities more carefully—particularly when spying on your friends. The fact that the U.S. was spying on Germany was not surprising to anyone. The surprise, as Stephen Walt put it, “has been in the scope and the almost compulsive, nonstrategic nature of what the U.S. has been doing.”[ii]

At least in part, though, the German reaction could be seen as hypocritical. Germany does not object to the scale of U.S. intelligence activities simply for moral reasons, or because it has too naïve a view of the modus vivendi of the transatlantic relationship: in a country that is traditionally skeptical of governmental spying, intelligence services are faced with budget constraints and increased accountability requirements. Even if Germany wanted to tap president Obama’s cell phone, it would probably lack the technical abilities to do so.

Many have been quick to interpret the current tensions as a potential enabler for a German rapprochement with Russia. Looking at German public opinion, the recent events have made unwavering support for the U.S. an increasingly unpopular political position to take. A poll conducted by Der Spiegel revealed that 57 percent of Germans want to see Berlin conduct its policies more independent from the U.S. An op-ed in the same issue put it more bluntly: “Germany's Choice: Will It Be America or Russia?”[iii]

Chancellor Merkel herself has expressed concern over the emergence of a situation that would put German politicians in an “either/or” position. When asked about the most recent revelations, Merkel said the breakdown in U.S.-Germany trust had returned the two countries to the thinking of the Cold War era, “Where everyone is suspicious of everyone.”[iv]

The ongoing discussion over “the right” foreign policy on Ukraine has further fed into the perceived necessity for Germans to re-evaluate the transatlantic alliance. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a number of opinion makers in Germany argued that there was a Russian side to the story too, and that it was important—and legitimate—to understand Moscow’s intentions. Many Germans voiced concerns that by supporting the Ukrainian national government, they were actually aiding ultranationalist forces looking to subjugate the country’s Russian-speaking population. In addition, Germany’s industrial sector has already felt the consequences of the economic sanctions against Russia—one of its most important trading partners—much more strongly than the U.S. has.

In light of the continuing escalation of the war in Ukraine and the recent downing of flight MH17, however, it appears highly unlikely that Germany would choose Russia over the U.S. The recent diplomatic brouhaha aside, Germany still appears committed to its ally. In his July 10 press conference, Seibert added that Germany would continue to seek “close and trusting” cooperation with its Western partners, especially the United States.[v]

Surely, though, the scandal comes as a big PR disaster for the U.S., not only damaging America’s image abroad, but likely affecting other countries’ willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on intelligence and other matters.

At a time when president Obama needs cooperation with his critical allies on issues like TTIP, the Iranian nuclear program, and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, it is understandable that he wants this dispute to quietly go away. His administration has been trying to downplay the issue by emphasizing that spying among allies wasn’t exactly news. Just as the intelligence services of every other nation did, Obama said that the U.S. would “continue to gather information about the intentions of governments—as opposed to ordinary citizens—around the world. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective.”[vi]

The expelled station chief, who worked undercover, had reportedly held the position for about a year. Current and former American officials claimed that it had in fact been his predecessor, who oversaw recruitment of the German double agent who was uncovered and arrested at the beginning of July.

The expulsion of the official will likely not result in a direct diplomatic response by the U.S. When asked whether the administration was considering expelling somebody from the German Embassy, which is often the standard reaction to an unjustified expulsion, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded that she didn’t have anything more to add on this particular topic. Others, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, were more vocal, accusing Germany of throwing a “political temper tantrum,” and arguing that expelling the CIA chief didn’t seem like a “very adult reaction.”[vii]

Despite the loaded political commentary coming out of both countries condemning the other side’s actions, the current scandal is unlikely to have a sustained negative impact on U.S.-German relations. According to the CIA’s former chief legal officer, “German politicians’ laments shouldn’t be taken for more than political theatrics.” Also, he suspected that, “career leadership [in the BND] is already quietly passing the word to its CIA counterparts that, ‘Hey, don’t pay any attention to the hoopla. We’re all professionals. Let’s forget about this and keep working together.’”[viii]

Regardless, in order to avoid further political confrontations and bad press, the U.S. would do well to evaluate their various intelligence activities in Europe with respect to their benefits and possible costs.