For over a year, Germans have expressed mounting outrage at revelations of American espionage in their country. The opportunity to shake one’s head and wag one’s finger, especially at uncouth Americans, is one that many Germans enjoy, and Washington’s eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, attempts to recruit officers from the federal intelligence service (BND) as moles, and monitoring citizens’ telephonic metadata, have brought about a crisis in German-American relations not seen since the run-up to the Iraq War. As a means of explaining the outcry, journalists and politicians resort to dubious comparisons of the Gestapo and Stasi, the domestic intelligence services of two, totalitarian regimes that blatantly violated the rights of the German populous. So great was German anger at the United States that Berlin took the unprecedented step of expelling the CIA station chief, a move normally reserved for adversaries, not allies.
Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Last month, the Suddeutsche Zeitung reported that Germany had listened in on telephone conversations conducted by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as her successor, John Kerry. Unlike the American spying, however, this surveillance was apparently unintentional, the mere “by-catch” that inevitably goes with signals intelligence. Given the BND’s allegedly sparse collection of just 2 conversations conducted by American officials, and its immediate deletion of one of them (the Kerry phone call), it would be unfair to compare Washington’s extensive and deliberate surveillance of German targets with Berlin’s seemingly haphazard and accidental retrieval of American ones.
But America’s spies still have some reason for schadenfreude. That’s because of a simultaneous story in Der Spiegel reporting on a 2009 BND document listing Turkey as a long time intelligence target. In a replay of the Germans’ own series of reprimands to the United States, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador in Ankara for a proverbial spanking, decrying the allegations as "absolutely unacceptable.”
Not long ago, I defended the NSA and CIA’s operations in Germany and counseled Germans to calm down. My reason was three-fold: Berlin had been at the center of Cold War espionage for decades, divided in half by the Iron Curtain. The fall of the Berlin Wall, however, did not obviate the need for continued spying; reunified Germany’s cozy relations with Russia and Iran amply justify American spooks trying to divine the intentions of the German government and business sectors. Germans, I argued finally, need to grow up and understand that all countries spy, oftentimes even on friends. Thus far, no none has provided any evidence indicating that an innocent German has been blackmailed or persecuted by information obtained by the NSA, as was routine during the Gestapo and Stasi eras.
Now, rather than rub this latest bit of news in their faces, I’ll defend the Germans: They’re absolutely right to spy on Turkey, and for pretty much the same reasons that America is justified for snooping on Germany.
Since the 1950s, when droves of Turks started coming to help rebuild the post-war Federal Republic, Turkey and Germany have had a special relationship. Originally envisioned as “guest workers,” these young men eventually brought their families to Germany and permanently settled. Today, with some 3 million people of Turkish descent, Germany is home to the largest Turkish diaspora community in the world.