US gambling on its friendship with Germany


After the revelations last autumn, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) was involved in widespread phone surveillance of millions of German citizens, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, an angry Berlin sought a “no-spy” agreement from its ally. To no avail.

The US said that, while it would promise not to bug the chancellor’s phone again, to reach such a broad agreement would mean all its allies would want one too – the subtext, as one US intelligence source disingenuously complained to the New York Times: “There is huge hypocrisy here. Allies spy on each other – that’s not exactly news. And Germany makes huge use of what we provide them from our infrastructure in Europe and around the world. Yet they had to respond to the outrage.”

Realpolitik? Yes. Although the logic will sit less comfortably with the targets of spying. Hans-Peter Uhl, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, sister party to Merkel’s CDU, complained yesterday to the Frankfurter Allgemeine that America conducts itself in Germany “like a digital occupying power”.

Not surprising then that sooner or later the US would again be caught red-handed with its fingers in the till. The arrest on Friday of a 31-year-old employee of Germany’s foreign intelligence service (BND) for passing some 200 documents to a US contact could not come at a worse time. Reports say the agent had access to information on all of the BND’s foreign operations and agent identities – as well as papers from a German parliamentary inquiry into NSA surveillance. The detail was wonderful, pure Le Carré for the 21st century; messages encoded for transmission through a disguised weather app.

The US ambassador has been called in for a ticking off. President Joachim Gauck has warned that it was “ really a gamble with friendship, with a close alliance . . . We really have to say, ‘Enough’.” Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is demanding the “quickest possible clarification”.

Yet, given the transparency of policy-making by western democracies, Germany included, and the willingness of Nato allies to share most intelligence, it is strange that a simple cost-benefit analysis by the US of the value of information obtained by covert means against the cost of broken trust in important relationships would suggest that such espionage on friends is simply not worth the candle.

As Financial Times columnist Edward Luce observes, the whole business gives a new meaning to Henry Kissinger’s old complaint about dealing with the EU that the problem is knowing who to ring. The answer these days, Luce muses, is “Merkel”. “Germans might paraphrase that to ask whose phone Americans most want to tap”. But the US would be advised to get out of the habit.