US double standards exposed in Berlin spy row
Whether they trust one another or not, Germany and the US will continue to share intelligence
A US flag flies in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the US embassy in Berlin. Germany’s expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin is close to a diplomatic nuclear option and is unprecedented in the postwar history of German-US relations. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images
A few years before he died in 2006, the former East German spy chief Markus Wolf, known as “the man without a face”, told me about the qualities he looked for in the agents his spies recruited in the West. Status was a poor indicator of effectiveness, he said, and secretaries and doormen were among the most valuable recruits. Political ideology was the best reason for passing secrets to another country but money and vengeance were good motivators too.
Wolf’s observation came to mind this week as Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, sought to play down the significance of the latest evidence of the United States spying on its German allies. Dismissing the 31-year-old employee of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the foreign intelligence service, who is accused of selling documents to the Central Intelligence Agency for €25,000, as a “third-rate” person, Schäuble said it was “idiotic” for the US to operate in such a way. “So much stupidity makes one want to cry,” he said. Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a similarly weary tone, saying the US and Germany had “better things to do” than to spy on one another.
The true extent of Berlin’s anger only became clear on Thursday, when it took the extraordinary step of expelling the CIA station chief, the highest-ranking US intelligence officer in Germany. This action is close to a diplomatic nuclear option and is unprecedented in the postwar history of German-US relations. Some US politicians and commentators claim that Merkel’s government is feigning outrage to placate public opinion, adding the jaded observation that “everybody knows” that allies spy upon one another. They are almost certainly mistaken.
It’s true that the latest spy scandal will not dislodge Germany from the western alliance, any more than the revelation that the US was bugging Merkel’s mobile phone did. And whether they trust one another or not, Germany and the US will continue to share intelligence when it is in their mutual interest. But at a time when more than 70 per cent of Germans believe the US is “power-hungry” and only one in four regards their ally as “trustworthy”, according to an Infratest dimap poll conducted last week, this row will further erode confidence. It will fuel opposition across Europe to co-operation with Washington and undermine support for the transatlantic trade agreement currently being negotiated in secret by the US and the European Union.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Berlin’s expulsion of the station chief followed a call with CIA director John Brennan earlier this week during which he “offered little but platitudes about the value of the trans-Atlantic alliance and expressed frustration about the bad press”. Brennan has become one of the most powerful figures in the Obama administration, chiefly because of the central role of the CIA in the president’s foreign policy.
Determined to avoid large-scale military interventions following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has favoured covert action against America’s enemies, notably targeted killings. Brennan oversees two key instruments of this strategy, the CIA’s armed drone attacks and its “special activities”, covert operations including paramilitary activity and the rendition of suspected terrorists. Some in Washington fear that its elevated role in the president’s counter-terrorism strategy may have gone to its head and that it has become a law unto itself.
In a remarkable speech on the Senate floor last March, Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of improperly spying on her committee’s staff by searching their computers. “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principle embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause,” she said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”
The failure of Congress to properly oversee the US intelligence services is partly responsible for the abuses revealed by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, which have undermined trust between Washington and its allies. After the revelation that the US had been bugging Merkel’s phone, Berlin sought a “no-spy” agreement with Washington similar to that enjoyed by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The “Five Eyes” group of Anglophone nations started sharing signals intelligence immediately after the second World War, although the agreement was not made public until 2005.
No spy request
The US refused Germany’s no-spy request and it is clear that Berlin has received no assurances this week that the spying will stop. Indeed few in Washington believe there is any reason to stop snooping on allies. It is a very different story when America finds itself spied upon by its allies, as former civilian intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard discovered when he was caught passing classified information to Israel in the mid-1980s. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987, Pollard is still behind bars, despite energetic Israeli lobbying for his release.
The double standard exposed by the Berlin spy row is an expression of the American exceptionalism that no US president, including Obama, has been willing to challenge despite the country’s relative decline. Washington needs Berlin’s support on a number of urgent foreign policy issues, notably Ukraine and Iran. German public opinion is divided on how to approach the crisis in Ukraine, with many Germans reluctant to confront Vladimir Putin too robustly. If the US hopes for greater co-operation from Germany and other European allies, it might start by adopting a more conciliatory tone in disputes like the one this week. And it should rein in its spies, both at home and abroad.
Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor