Edward Snowden’s revelations about the foreign and domestic surveillance practices of the National Security Agency have inspired a great deal of anger around the world, but nowhere has the fury been stronger than in Germany. “Goodbye, Friends!” read the front page of Die Zeit last November, when it was disclosed that the NSA had monitored one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phones. Der Spiegel, which breathlessly published a report last fall alleging the U.S. embassy in Berlin was a “nest of espionage,” has warned of an “ice age” in German-American relations. “If this happened during the administration of George W. Bush, we could at least think, ‘It’s just Bush. . . . There is a better America,’ ” a writer for the magazine ruefully concluded. “Now we know: There is only one America.”
That “one America” is, in the eyes of many Germans, a “false friend.” This is how German political magazine Focus described erstwhile “citizen of the world” Barack Obama, once celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Germans when he visited Berlin in 2008. The exposé about Merkel’s phone, as well as earlier reports detailing NSA collection of telephonic metadata from German citizens, has stoked feelings of betrayal. When allegations arose in early February that the NSA had also eavesdropped on Gerhard Schröder in the run-up to the Iraq war, which he vocally opposed, the former Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor expressed the dejected feelings of many of his countrymen: “At the time, I wouldn’t have thought that the American services were eavesdropping on me, but now it doesn’t surprise me.” A recent poll finds that 57 percent of Germans describe relations with the United States as positive, down from a high of 92 percent less than two years ago. Not since Schröder decided to use Iraq as a wedge issue in the 2002 federal election have German-American relations been so rocky.
The discord is more than rhetorical. Germany’s federal public prosecutor Harald Range is considering an investigation into American espionage, and even figures within Merkel’s relatively pro-American Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have been making noises about bringing legal action against Washington. “It seems quite clear to me that the law was violated on German soil,” thundered Clemens Binninger, the CDU chairman of the Bundestag committee overseeing intelligence. The response is partly driven by domestic politics, namely, the agitating of Germany’s post-Communist left, which has always been suspicious of America and now smells blood. Gregor Gysi, the parliamentary leader of the radical Left party, decries the CDU-SPD coalition as a cabal of “yes-men.” “The fact that the German government and the federal prosecutor [aren’t] acting shows that their fear of the U.S. government is greater than their respect for our legal system,” he says. Earlier this month, the Chaos Computer Club, a hackers’ collective, joined an obscure outfit called the International League for Human Rights in filing a criminal complaint against the German government, accusing it of collaborating with the NSA to spy on unsuspecting German citizens.
The NSA scandal has pushed Merkel’s government into an unfortunate balancing act. Pained though she might have been to discover that the NSA was snooping on her personal phone, she is hesitant to fan the flames of anti-Americanism, as her predecessor did a decade ago. Yet, at the same time, it is politically tenuous for a German leader to tell a whipped-up electorate that they are overreacting. Last August, then-interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich attempted to push back against some of the more overwrought claims about NSA surveillance. Not unlike many Americans, Germans had come to believe that the NSA was monitoring the contents of their every email, text message, and phone call, as opposed to analyzing metadata and zeroing in on potential terrorism threats. “If you are implying that people all across Germany are being spied on, I can tell you that this isn’t the case,” Friedrich told Der Spiegel. “The datasets that the Americans allegedly ‘siphoned off’ consist of connection data from crisis zones, specifically from Afghanistan. These are not telephone calls in Germany, but calls outside Germany, in which, for example, planned attacks on soldiers are being discussed. I think preventing these acts of terror was the right thing to do.” Friedrich went on to say that Germany is not a “central surveillance target” of the NSA, a false impression that the myopic German press had fed. “Even if the NSA were to stop taking an interest in the Internet, there are other states that do so, and, to be sure, in a far more brazen way,” the new interior minister, Thomas de Mazière, recently pointed out, countering the line that it is America, and only America, which is spying on Germans.
In its misinformed hysteria, European anger over U.S. spying echoes the reaction to disclosures in the mid-’90s about the -ECHELON program, a signals intelligence network operated by members of the UKUSA Agreement (also known as the “Five Eyes” and comprising the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). European media and governments raised a hue and cry, accusing Washington of conducting economic espionage on behalf of private companies, much as Snowden has claimed—without evidence—today. Yet the only two instances of businesses targeted by ECHELON involved employees of those companies—Airbus and Thomson-CSF—offering bribes to Saudi and Brazilian officials, respectively. Far from stealing industry secrets to assist American businesses, ECHELON unmasked European parastatals engaging in blatantly illegal behavior aimed at undermining competition.
Schröder’s remark that he would have been surprised to learn he was being spied on in the early 2000s is also somewhat difficult to believe. The press accounts and popular reaction to the NSA revelations registered a disbelieving tone, “as if this had happened for the first time, as if it was something terribly bad and unique,” German historian Josef Foschepoth, author of the book, Monitored Germany: Postal and Telephone Monitoring in the Old Federal Republic, told the German broadcaster DeutscheWelle last summer. “But that is not the case. From my own research, I know that this happened countless times in the 1960s in Germany.” After all, the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, was created by the CIA after World War II, and the Allies had a duty to ensure that Germany would not repeat the mistakes of its past.
Germans are too righteous in their indignation against America to realize it, but in their selective outrage, they are falling prey to the same divide-and-rule tactics that the Soviet Union employed when the Iron Curtain bisected Germany. “Active measures” was the Cold War term used to describe the Russian art of political warfare, including everything from propaganda to penetration of religious organizations to assassination. In this sense, whether Edward Snowden had assistance from the Russian intelligence services before he started work as an NSA contractor, as House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers has intimated, is beside the point: Since relocating to Moscow, where he was granted temporary asylum last summer, every one of his revelations has served the foreign policy interests of Vladimir Putin. And it is in Germany where Snowden’s disclosures have had the most profoundly harmful impact on America’s reputation and the transatlantic alliance.
It’s no secret that a crucial component of Putin’s agenda is to divide the West. One way to do that is plant in the collective mind of the German public the notion the United States is a “false friend.” The goal is not to reorient Germany entirely towards Russia; Putin, who served the KGB in Dresden from 1985 until 1990 and speaks fluent German, knows the country too well to believe such an audacious project could succeed. A newfangled version of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, edging Germany ever so slowly away from its traditional NATO allies, will suffice. Anything that breeds suspicion about America and its motives and weakens Berlin’s relationship with Washington furthers Putin’s goals. Already, the NSA revelations have threatened to derail progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a massive potential trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
Some Germans, either knowingly or naïvely, are going along for the ride. In October, Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele traveled to Moscow to meet with Snowden. He returned demanding that Germany grant asylum to the fugitive leaker so that he can testify before the Bundestag about American intelligence practices. Given the tight security around Snowden and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts in Russia, such a rendezvous would not have been possible without Putin’s approval. Gysi, the Left party leader, nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not a question of whether the Russians had to actively enlist these men in support of Snowden and his aims, for they have always had a soft spot for Mother Russia. In the 1970s, Ströbele was a lawyer for the Baader Meinhof gang, the murderous revolutionaries who sowed terror and destruction across West Germany, all the while in receipt of financial and logistical support from the Stasi, the gruesome East German intelligence service. Gysi, for his part, leads the rump of the East German Socialist Unity party, and has never been able to definitively repudiate accusations that he was a Stasi asset in the 1980s.
Merkel has also lamentably joined the pile-on. Last week, a leaked phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, intensified the sense of strife between America and its European allies, strained already by Snowden’s revelations. Describing her frustration with the European Union’s lack of resolve in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, Nuland used some adult language. The Russians made little effort to mask the fact that they were responsible for intercepting the conversation, and Nuland self-deprecatingly remarked that the tapping was “impressive tradecraft.” Rather than say that it was not her business to comment on private conversations between American diplomats (as, one presumes, she would not want American political leaders commenting publicly on her own private conversations), Merkel instead said, through a spokesman, that Nuland’s comments were “totally unacceptable.”
Also notable is that Snowden granted his first, full television interview to a German public broadcaster. In it, Snowden alleged that the NSA engaged in industrial espionage, and specifically named Siemens, the German engineering conglomerate, as a target of American snooping. (The United States has long denied that it conducts such espionage, and Snowden offered no documentation to support his claim.) Snowden also said that the U.S. government wants to kill him. Snowden did not choose just any German journalist for his unprecedented interview but Hubert Seipel, who, in 2012, produced a laudatory documentary of the Russian president titled I, Putin—a Portrait. Putin handpicked Seipel for the job; the Russian leader had never given such access to a Western journalist.
Laura Poitras, the American filmmaker to whom Snowden entrusted his cache of documents (along with journalist Glenn Greenwald), currently resides in Berlin, which she lauds as “a safe place to work.” Also resident in the German capital is Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker and former spokesman for WikiLeaks, who relocated there from Seattle. While traveling the world on behalf of WikiLeaks, which published a quarter of a million stolen State Department cables, Appelbaum had been detained several times at U.S. airports for questioning, and it was this alleged harassment that led him to move to Germany, where he lives unmolested by the authorities.
To dampen the public outcry, which shows no sign of abating, the German government has made an extraordinary request: a “no-spy” agreement with the United States. Such an accord could materialize in two ways: on a bilateral level with the United States, or, as the Germans would much prefer, via an invitation to join the Five Eyes, the Anglophone alliance that enables widespread intelligence sharing with the proviso that its members not spy on one another. With origins in the 1941 Atlantic Charter between Washington and London, it is the strongest and most successful such intelligence agreement of its kind, putting the “special” into “special relationship.”
The Five Eyes grew out of the aftermath of the Second World War, in which Germany was the aggressor. And though the postwar Federal Republic was a strong ally in the battle against communism, Germany continued to be excluded from the pact partly because it was the main staging ground of the Cold War in Europe. East German intelligence penetration of the Federal Republic made inclusion of West Germany in the pact too risky; in 1974, Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt was forced to resign when it was revealed that one of his closest aides, Gunther Guillaume, was a Stasi agent.
But nearly 25 years after German reunification, expansion of the Five Eyes remains a problematic proposition, and not just because of the precedent it would set (one does not need to be a spy to know that letting more people in on a secret inevitably raises the chances of it leaking out). According to John Schindler, a former NSA intelligence officer and current professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, Germany’s obtaining a no-spy agreement with the United States, never mind access to the Five Eyes, would be next to impossible. Even though the BND boasts a strong relationship with the NSA on a “working level,” there are significant “political complications” that would make German inclusion in the Five Eyes infeasible. “The frankness that comes from working together since World War II,” Schindler says, is due largely to a high degree of foreign policy coordination among the Five Eyes to which Germany is unsuited. “The German political establishment views some issues pretty differently than the Five Eyes,” Schindler says. The gulf between Germany and the Five Eyes regarding Russia, Iran, and China (with which Berlin has relatively good relations, not to mention strong economic interests), is simply too great. Letting Germany join the club would be a “big culture change for everyone involved,” a change that has little to do with a mere difference in language.
By joining the Five Eyes, Germany wants to exempt itself from something to which no other country (save the other four members of the group, of course) is immune: being the target of NSA surveillance. Not even the French, who also complained loudly about the NSA revelations, have requested inclusion in the Five Eyes, as they know such a radical policy change would never occur. “We’re not within that framework, and we don’t intend to join,” President François Hollande flatly stated when asked if he would follow the Germans in demanding access to the club. The French, whose own domestic and foreign intelligence tactics are more invasive than America’s (especially in the realm of economic espionage, where they are particularly shameless), are masters of hypocrisy. As such, they lack the innocence of the Germans, who genuinely seem to believe that a no-spy agreement is possible.
The debate in Germany over foreign spying exists in a vacuum, as if it is only the United States (and the United Kingdom) that spy. Reading major German media, listening to prominent German politicians, and speaking with Germans, one would never know that Russia and China (never mind close allies like France) also spy on Germans. Score another propaganda victory for Putin.
The very real German anger over American spying (as opposed to the contrived, winking outrage of the French), and the demand for a no-spy agreement, derives from a particular, postwar German innocence about the world. Stephan Meyer, a CDU politician who has called for barring American companies from competing for German government contracts should Washington not agree to a no-spy treaty, demonstrated this naïveté when he demanded that the “U.S. has to be candid” about its espionage in Germany, utterly oblivious to the oxymoronic quality of his admonition.
Lost on most Germans is a sense that American intelligence operations benefit Germany. “The Germans get more than they give,” Schindler says, citing the growing number of Salafists resident in Germany and the degree to which American intelligence cooperation has helped the Germans monitor radicals and thwart terrorist attacks. The NSA’s work in Germany is part of the broader defense umbrella that the United States has provided Europe for over 70 years. Far from being grateful for such protection, however, many Germans seethe with resentment. Germany’s request for a no-spy accord reeks of guileless desperation; such an agreement would be almost entirely one-sided. It’s not as if Germany has any great need to spy in America; it is Washington that serves as the world’s policeman, not Berlin.
To judge by the outrage being expressed by politicians, press, and public, the majority of Germans cannot conceive of any reason why a country would engage in espionage other than warmongering, economic infiltration, and political repression. Part of this thinking comes from the country’s experience of living under the Gestapo and then the Stasi, to which nearly every news story reporting on German anger over the NSA reliably alludes. Those comparisons are preposterous; what differentiates the NSA from the Nazi and Communist secret police is not only the nature of the political regimes under which they operated, but the purpose for which the information gathered is used. Surveillance by the Nazis and East German Communists was used to oppress and murder. No one has pointed to a single example of the NSA using metadata (or whatever information was gleaned from listening to Merkel’s campaign cell phone) for such purposes.
The German outrage over American spying is of a piece with a larger flight from reality, demonstrative of a German desire to inhabit a post-conflict world in which there is no need for the dark arts of espionage. Germany’s pacifist political culture looks down on America and its propensity for hard power, faulting us for failing to learn the lessons that they, the Germans, have learned all too well. It was thus refreshing to hear a speech delivered earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference, in which the German president, former political dissident Joachim Gauck, scolded those of his countrymen “who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”
The beauty of “active measures” is that they require only the faintest touch from the intelligence service running the operation. As Economist editor Edward Lucas notes in his new ebook, The Snowden Operation, “given the right initial direction and a favorable propaganda environment, political movements in the West can serve the Kremlin’s purpose without hands-on control.” He draws a comparison to covert Soviet support for the various “peace” movements that sprang up around Western Europe in the late 1970s and 1980s to protest the deployment of American nuclear-tipped missiles on the continent. Then, as now, those who bemoaned the West’s “militarization” were sincere in their anger, yet it was curiously one-sided. There is a word for the sensation that Vladimir Putin must be feeling as he watches the Germans work themselves up into a pious tizzy and the Americans hang their heads in embarrassment: schadenfreude.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative. He was a 2012-2013 Robert Bosch Foundation fellow in Berlin.