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.