U.S. spying on Germany: Making enemies out of allies, and for what?

July 11, 2014

German Chancellor Merkel attends a session of Bundestag in Berlin

What were they thinking?

In the wake of last fall’s revelation that the National Security Agency had wiretapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, the report of U.S. intelligence’s involvement in two other likely cases of spying on Germany is mind-boggling.

Now the story has taken a dramatic new turn, with Germany expelling the CIA chief of station in Berlin — an almost unprecedented step by an ally. This unusual action reflects how seriously the Merkel government takes these spying allegations.

What could the CIA hope to gain by infiltrating the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service, knowing there was a chance that the operation might be exposed? What was worth this risk?

U.S. President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel address joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden in WashingtonCIA and White House officials have said little to answer the question. But the fact that German industry has strong ties to both Russia and Iran may offer a clue. So economic and political intelligence about Germany’s contacts with those countries could be high on the list of potential U.S. intelligence targets. The CIA might for example, be interested in whether the Merkel government – heavily dependent on oil imports from Russia – is thinking about softening its opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s support for Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Identifying possible terrorists under surveillance by German intelligence agencies could be another reason. Both the CIA and the FBI are keenly aware that the 9/11 al Qaeda plot that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center was hatched in Hamburg. Germany has long served as a transit hub between East and West, and it also has a sizable Arab immigrant community.

Potential targets in the German military are another temptation, despite the fact that Germany is a partner of the United States as a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member. But as one U.S. official suggested, the Germans don’t always confide either their military or political strategy — especially in the current climate of mistrust.

The timing, meanwhile, could hardly be worse for the United States. Washington already has severely strained relations with Merkel.  Last month, Germany’s federal prosecutor opened a formal investigation of U.S. eavesdropping on the chancellor’s cell phone — which was revealed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now granted asylum in Russia.

Merkel reacted furiously to the revelations that Washington had been listening to her calls.  “Spying among friends,” she said, “is simply unacceptable.”  The breach of trust between the two countries, she added, would have to be repaired.

Mobile phone simulating call to German Chancellor Merkel next to a tablet showing the logo of NSA is seen in picture illustration taken in FrankfurtThe White House lamely responded that Merkel’s phone was not currently being wiretapped, and would not be in the future. But it said nothing about the past –indirectly confirming that the NSA had eavesdropped on her.

Tension between Washington and Berlin over intelligence operations keeps getting worse. Last week, it was revealed that a 31-year-old employee of the BND had been arrested for allegedly funneling secrets to the CIA. A second case surfaced on Wednesday, when Berlin police searched the apartment and office of a man said to work for the German Defense Ministry, who is another suspected U.S. spy.

Germans are particularly sensitive to surveillance and spying, given the legacy of the Nazi Gestapo and, more recently, the years of domestic surveillance by the Stasi spy service in Communist East Germany — where Merkel grew up.

“Spying is OK,” one former U.S. intelligence officer told me, “as long as you’re not caught.”

But in the age of Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the former Army private sentenced to 35 years in prison after releasing thousands of secret cables and documents to WikiLeaks, getting caught seems far more likely — and keeping secrets much more difficult.  Today, the CIA has to assume that every operation has the potential to be compromised.

The former U.S. intelligence officer, experienced in dealing with the Germans, said the cell phone tapping and newest episodes raise the larger question of whether anyone in Washington is weighing the risks of espionage, and the damage that can be caused by exposure, against the benefits — if any. He wondered if the CIA’s clandestine service “is on auto pilot,” continuing to run these espionage operations because it can.

The spying revelations have created a dilemma for the Obama administration.  Either the president knew about the tapping of Merkel’s phone and the newest cases, and failed to disclose that information to her, a close ally — or he did not know. If he was not briefed on these cases, then it would suggest that the White House is not exercising enough control over its own intelligence agencies.

Reinhard GehlenSpying on the German Federal Intelligence Service is particularly sensitive.  The reason is, for decades, Berlin has sought a “no-spy” agreement with Washington, which would guarantee that each country would not spy on the other. Berlin has been seeking to be a member of the secret, English-speaking club called Five Eyes, a formal pact in which the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand agree to share intelligence and not spy on each other.

The cell-phone debacle and the latest spying accusations in Germany are particularly ironic, because the United States created the BND.  During World War II, Reinhard Gehlen, a German army general, was chief of Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East), the intelligence unit that spied on the Soviet Union.  After the war, Washington was desperate for intelligence on the Russians, so the United states set Gehlen up in Pullach, near Munich, as head of his own intelligence organization — which later became the BND.

Spying of the kind alleged in the case of the BND employee arrested last week would have been justified during the Cold War if, for example, it uncovered information about the Soviet nuclear arsenal — knowledge that in a war could conceivably save the lives of millions of Americans.

But the Cold War is long over. This is 2014 — time for Washington to rethink its relationship with Germany, its most important European ally.


PHOTO (TOP): German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, March 20, 2014. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

PHOTO (INSERT 1): German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens to President Barack Obama address a joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, May 2, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A mobile phone simulating a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel next to a tablet computer showing the logo of the United Staes’ National Security Agency (NSA) is seen in this multiple exposure picture illustration taken in Frankfurt, October 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

PHOTO (INSERT): Reinhard Gehlen. Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archives


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This is another example of Obama administration incompetence.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

There is always a need to learn what others are thinking. That is why spying is one of the world’s old professions. To think otherwise is merely naive.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

The question is, “Who outed the CIA?” Could it possibly have been someone who is trying to cause even more problems for President Obama and foment even more chaos in the world? “The spying revelations have created a dilemma for the Obama administration. Either the president knew about the tapping of Merkel’s phone and the newest cases, and failed to disclose that information to her, a close ally — or he did not know. If he was not briefed on these cases, then it would suggest that the White House is not exercising enough control over its own intelligence agencies.” Given the viciousness of ALEC/Koch brothers to continue to control American politics I would not be a bit surprised to learn it was their operatives. Will we have to wait to read history to know?

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

If it’s really a question of whether Germany is able to become the Sixth Eye, the question may not be a matter of assent by the U.S. but assent by other Eyes, all of which are constituents of the British Commonwealth. In particular, even though the current crop of members of Parliament are too young to have memories of World War II, I can think of a certain august lady who came of age during the war, who still retains some degree of political influence, and who is reputed to have a highly refined sense of history. It is possible that the idea is sensitive enough politically that it could not move forward without the support of such a person.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

My girlfriend, who grew up in the German Democratic Republic, When I made ​​portrait sculpture we talk a lot. He Told Me: When his parents and guests talking, my girlfriend was sitting under the table and hear the adults say “Shh, Do not talk about it Because they’re listening.” Everyone was afraid Staz. Interestingly, this system taught to the People: America is enemy and bad. All of us here grew up in Eastern Europe so that America is evil and wrong. This idea is articulated in Western Europe now.

Posted by songster | Report as abusive

Looking at how this administration deals with its own citizens, it is no surprise they spy on other countries. I would not be surprised to see more spying of even the closer English speaking countries.

Posted by JustProduce | Report as abusive

I think this more than just the indignation of being spied upon, this is more painful for Germans since they want to view America as a friend. I think the German and American people as a whole treat each other as ‘friends’, however the respective governments have never been close – before or after WWII. There is and for some reason always has been an inherent mistrust.

This article hints at some of the reasons – Germany has always wanted a ‘no spy’ agreement with the US; Germany has wanted to be part of the 5 eyes network. We spy on everyone including ourselves, Snowden made that abundantly clear! The 5 eyes network and NORAD are really the only two meaningful alliances the US has; and those countries have been friendly to the US since we settled our squabbles with England after 1812 – two hundred years ago! Germany and Japan are both ‘allies’ now but our trust with them only goes so far. The US fought multiple major wars as allies with the other ‘eyes’ and that is how trust is earned.

Note to Mr. Wise – Germany is not the US’s most important ally in Europe – the UK is and always will be!

Posted by Stickystones | Report as abusive

“For decades, Berlin has sought a “no-spy” agreement with Washington, which would guarantee that each country would not spy on the other.”
Since we have no such agreement with Germany, why do they feign surprise to learn that we actually have such spies. If I were a German, I would be upset to hear my government say that it didn’t know the Americans were spying on us.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

Sorry, but when you start two world wars and murder 6 million people… you’re going to get spied on. People don’t change that quickly. Past history considered, they should be grateful they still have a country at all. If it had been left up to the Russians or extremist Jews, they wouldn’t have one. They’re crying about some spying? Get over it. I’d be more worried if nobody is watching at all, vs worrying about their precious little feelings being hurt.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Spying is good. Getting caught spying is baaaadd.

Posted by Bighammerman | Report as abusive

> Making enemies out of allies, and for what?
The US congress/executive is fascist, ie. controlled by corporations. Fascism requires a surveillance state of everyone, including allies, in order to ensure corporate welfare.
That’s your answer. You may not like it but it’s the truth.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

UScitizentoo, Yes, I agree, well said.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

It’s the Obama Doctrine. Alienate your friends and appease your enemies. It has been played out since 2008 and obvious for all to see.

Posted by zombietimeshare | Report as abusive

It is as if their is only one country on this earth, ant this is the USA. What ever, it may be a allied or an enemy, it has to have a finger in the game. Way is it that the US is so afraid of? If they do not trust their
allies, if they have to confirm their loyalty. Whey do the först of all look for allians. The US government i overwhelming so unsure of it self, that it is almost unbelievable. Their is a name for this kind of sickness, schizophrenia. All this spaying and attacks on other countries, will only give one result, more terrorists. It is as in the old Roman state, it always wanted to control the world.

Posted by kommentar | Report as abusive

@UScitizen, couldn’t have said it better.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

US got into the World Secret Policeman mentality. Spying, bullying and attacking others is done with utmost arrogance. Results are catastrophic: Iraq, Afganistan, Ukraine are destabilized and in bloody ethnic conflicts. In Europe strategic objective of the US is first containment and then breakup of Russia as federation. Spying on allies is needed for checking their attitudes. Germany is in fact a lesser case, Eastern European countries are practically controlled by the US embassies and CIA station chiefs. This takes grotesque forms of e.g. strict censoring of media about the US policy or about war in the Ukraine.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Germans are not american vassals, otherwise is simply unacceptable.
The americans should gather all their belongings, close their garrisons with 40,000 troops and leave Germany.

Posted by Koldovika | Report as abusive

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