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Angst over Spying

Germany, Russia, and Snowden

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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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.

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