Opinion

The Great Debate

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

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.

The serious costs of weak CIA oversight

In her angry broadside at the CIA on the Senate floor last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said, “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search … may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”

She is right.

Congress has the constitutional authority to do robust oversight of executive branch activities.

Lost in the noise about who spied on whom in this continuing fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over release of a massive report on interrogations, is the history behind the skirmish.

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

On NSA, Obama still says ‘trust me’

President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday on intelligence reform marked a bullish shift in his approach to the National Security Agency.

The president dropped the pretense that there was “nothing to see here” — which his administration has offered since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the NSA.’s expanding surveillance. Obama now acknowledges that there are problems to be solved. Yet his reforms boiled down to “trust me.”

While Obama did announce several new ways to increase accountability at the NSA, most were limited to executive actions. So the president basically changed his mind about the limits that he wants to place on his own powers. That means he can just as easily change his mind again and reverse course. So can the next president.

Broaden the German-U.S. dialogue about snooping

Germans are not naive: They know that states spy, and that attempts to listen in to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conversations were to be expected. But they didn’t expect that the United States would do this, for a decade.

Trust needs to be rebuilt. We must go beyond an exchange of accusations and counter-accusations over this issue. As allies and democracies, the United States and Germany can do this, with some imagination and effort, and the relationship can be improved as a result.

From a U.S. perspective, the specific alleged offense — listening to Merkel’s cell phone conversations — has been remedied. President Barack Obama says the U.S. government is not doing this and will not do this.

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