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?


Every morning on his way to work, Helmut Kohl’s long-time driver, Eckhard Seeber, would bring some change from a jar in his kitchen. During their long days together the then German leader would often ask him to stop the car beside a random payphone at the side of the road. Seeber’s change in hand, the chancellor would squeeze into the telephone box to speak with confidantes and backbenchers. The German leader had a special car phone in his S-Class Mercedes, Seeber said, but he didn’t believe it was safe. Kohl’s political protege Angela Merkel now knows how he feels.

For 11 years her mobile was monitored by US National Security Agency intelligence officers reportedly working from a listening post in the US embassy, at the Brandenburg Gate. They reportedly saved her mobile’s metadata – the numbers called, call duration and location – and the contents of her calls and text messages. The revelation came from Der Spiegel, its source of information the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Merkel responded with an angry phone call to President Obama on Wednesday of last week, from her encrypted, apparently untapped landline. Hours later she told journalists that listening to friends was “just not done” and demanded a full investigation.

After a slow build during the summer the latest round of Snowden allegations – NSA tapping of leaders’ phones and of ”secure” data lines used by the internet giants Google and Yahoo – has driven pressure on the US to previously unthinkable levels.

Snowden’s offer yesterday to reveal all to a Bundestag investigation could blow the lid for good off decades of US espionage and the country’s troubled relationship with Germany.

“He is very interested in clearing up the whole story,” says Hans-Christian Ströbele, a German MP who met Snowden on Thursday in Moscow. “He could imagine coming to Germany if it’s guaranteed that afterwards he could stay in Germany or a similar country and is safe.”

In a city once swarming with cold-war spies, described by John le Carré as a “paradigm of human folly and historical paradox”, the stage is set for a humiliating striptease for the world’s last superpower. All Merkel has to do is give Snowden the nod. Trapped between a historical rock and a diplomatic hard place, what will she do?

As Snowden made his offer to Merkel in Moscow, the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, found his way to Berlin cinema screens, at least in the version of him played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Surveying the city’s skyline, the cinematic Assange marvels at the Reichstag, saying: “A government destroyed by tyranny then rebuilt with a dome of glass so the whole world could look in.”

Thanks to Snowden, Germans know that the whole world, led by the US, is not just looking through the Reichstag dome but listening in to the chancellery. The annoyance in Germany has been shot through with resignation, particularly from those old enough to remember the cold war. Fifty-four per cent of Germans view Snowden as a hero, according to a Stern magazine poll; 8 per cent see him as a traitor.

In Germany the global debate about privacy in the digital age takes place on a unique fault line. An allergy to state snooping among older generations, triggered by memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi, finds itself rubbing up against the 21st-century social-media trend to share ever more information with the world; the trend has not bypassed young Germans.

This friction has generated reactions to the latest Snowden revelations that range from shrugs of indifference to normally buttoned-down TV moderators thundering moral condemnation of the US over the air.

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.

German implication
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.

The problems began after the 9/11 attack, in 2001, when the then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, promised the US “unconditional solidarity”. After his yes to Afghanistan, though, he delivered a resounding no to Iraq.

The irony of the Merkelphone affair is that Merkel was the only leading German politician who backed the Bush administration on Iraq. So why spy on her? Perhaps because Schröder’s 2002 re-election on the anti-war ticket put Merkel in pole position as the most likely candidate to try to unseat him the next time around. Which she did.

But this is all speculation, and German politicians in Washington this week say they got no concrete answers about why the NSA considered Merkel a legitimate target.

The German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht says there was only delayed recognition of anger in Germany and elsewhere. “But still there are no consequences from the Obama administration, which seems to be a big mistake.”

The most outspoken remark came on Tuesday, when the US national-security adviser, Susan Rice, promised a review to “ensure we are collecting information because we need it and not just because we can”.

With Germany pushing for answers, the question now facing Merkel is how far she should go. If she grants Snowden asylum, and brushes aside a US arrest warrant filed in July, US-German relations could enter uncharted, choppy waters. One of Germany’s most experienced diplomats, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former ambassador to London and the US, has warned against engaging in a “tit-for-tat” strategy with Washington. “Inviting Snowden to Germany would be perceived in the US as just as big a slap in the face as eavesdropping on leaders is here.”

The other danger, said Ischinger, who is head of the Munich Security Conference, would be for Berlin to push for a bilateral no-spying agreement with Washington that leaves others outside the door.

“What kind of a show of solidarity would that be with our EU partners, with whom we want and need a common foreign policy?” Ischinger said on German radio. “The most satisfactory solution would be such an agreement between US and either the EU or EU Nato partners.”

For Merkel, the NSA scandal and Snowden’s offer present risks and opportunities to define her political legacy.

Minefield of memory
At home, to drag Berlin’s relationship with Washington out of the difficult teen years into something more mature requires negotiating the minefield of memory between enemy camps in Germany who accuse each other of cold-war cap-doffing and anti-American wounded pride.

Beyond Germany, the events could be a lever to shift transatlantic relations on to a new footing in the post-9/11 world, with Europe demanding a recalibration of the role of intelligence in the battle against international terrorism.

“Snowden could be a means of pressure – even a means of shaping – a new, refashioned transatlantic relationship,” says Dr Marcel Dickow of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The world’s press, gathered at the Reichstag for Snowden’s testimony, would give her a stage and a chance to head a new European movement. It would require quite a bit of courage, though, and Merkel prefers not to act in that way. But she’s always good for a surprise.”

Snowden’s revelations. Merkel’s choice.

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