Dial M for Merkel: Angela’s next move
Relations between the US and Germany are straining after news leaked that the NSA has been eavesdropping on the chancellor’s phone calls. What difference might Edward Snowden’s offer to reveal all to a Bundestag investigation make?
It has exposed unresolved tensions between the former occupier and the occupied state, a proxy battle fought for decades by two camps of Germans: those who are grateful for US postwar assistance and those who are resentful of US hegemony.
From the former camp, the US-based, German-born historian Fritz Stern attacked the NSA’s surveillance of Merkel as an “illegal, foolish, criminal act”. Other pro-US voices criticised the government for using unencrypted phones. The former chancellor Helmut Schmidt recommended that Merkel keep a cool head, saying he “never viewed the Americans as more high-born than the others in espionage”.
Leading the US-critical camp, Stern magazine splashed an unflattering picture of Barack Obama on its cover story, a “farewell to a false friend”. “He’s not just the most powerful leader of the so-called free world, he is also its most powerful snitch,” it wrote, listing about 90 US defence contractors operating in Germany for US intelligence services. An unnamed German counterintelligence official told the magazine that although the cold war is over, a culture of deference to the former occupying power persists in Germany’s intelligence services. “You know when you start this job that one shouldn’t look too closely at the Americans; it’s not politically opportune,” the official told Stern.
Its main rival, Der Spiegel, spent most of the summer printing data that Snowden leaked to it, detailing the NSA’s dragnet on electronic communications in Germany and the rest of Europe, as well as claims that the agency bugged German and EU officials in the US.
The NSA hit back, saying much of its leaked data had been misinterpreted. It said documents showing millions of phone calls intercepted in Germany, France and Spain were calls to and from Afganistan that had been routed through the respective countries.
After a swift investigation, Merkel’s chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, announced the case closed in August, before the revelations could leak into the election campaign.
But far from being an open-and-shut case of a false alarm, or even a black-and-white morality fable of heroes and villains, the Snowden documents suggest that Germans were involved in the system they condemn. German intelligence services requested and were granted access to XKeyscore, an NSA tool for searching and analysing data from internet users across the world, apparently without explicit court approval or supervision.
Once Germany’s foreign and domestic intelligence services, the BND and BfV, were granted access to XKeyscore, Der Spiegel claimed, they were among its most prolific users. Other revelations this week revealed a five-year US-German co-operation on an undercover programme called Project 6.
Merkel’s top foreign-policy adviser, in Washington on Wednesday to demand answers, was reportedly confronted with documents, mistakenly sent to the NSA by the BND, listing 300 phone numbers of US citizens apparently tapped by the Germans.
A day earlier, at a congressional hearing, the US national intelligence director, James Clapper, drew a parallel between European outrage about US surveillance and the scene in the film Casablanca in which the crooked local police chief declares his shock at ill-disguised gambling going on at Rick’s Café Americain.
The transatlantic sniping reflects a decade of problematic drift in the German-US relationship. Although their leaders still fall back on familiar rhetoric from the JFK era, the Berlin-Washington foreign-policy Venn diagrams of friends and allies show less and less overlap.
In St Petersburg last September, Obama waited until Merkel had boarded her flight home before getting all the other European members of the G20 present to sign up to his declaration demanding a response to Syrian gas attacks.
Merkel was caught out in grand style, two years after she showed the US the cold shoulder by siding with China and Russia to abstain from a UN vote authorising military action against Muammar Gadafy in Libya. Berlin insists its troops shoulder their weight in international military missions. Washington snaps that it runs a mile from the dirty work.