Revelations that a 31-year-old German intelligence service employee has allegedly been passing hundreds of classified government files to the United States for the past several years has prompted cries of shock and outrage from some of the Obama administration's closest allies in Berlin. But the Germans shouldn’t have been surprised. Washington has been spying on Germany for decades, and that work will almost certainly continue well into the future.
When top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone, President Obama insisted that he hadn't known about the surveillance -- a claim many intelligence community veterans found laughable -- and promised to bring it to a stop. But the White House said nothing about ending other spying operations inside Germany or even against top officials in the Merkel government. There was a good reason for that: Those extensive intelligence-gathering efforts are continuing for both counterterrorism purposes and diplomatic reasons, and include monitoring German relationships with other governments, former officials said.
"The idea that we wouldn't conduct espionage of any sort on German soil is unspeakably silly," said a former U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be identified while discussing current operations.
When the diplomatic spat that German reporters have taken to calling the "double-agent scandal" erupted last week, some politicians called on Merkel to declare all CIA officers at the American Embassy in Berlin persona non grata, which would lead to their expulsion from the country. The German interior minister said the country should step up its own spying on Washington, and German politicians and commentators have been calling on the Obama administration to confirm whether the mole in the heart of German intelligence is, in fact, a spy for the Americans.
A high-ranking German official told Foreign Policy that it was too soon to say whether the spying allegations, which are now the subject of a law enforcement investigation, can be fully substantiated. But he pointed to foreboding comments by Merkel during a news conference on Monday in Beijing, where she has been holding meetings with top Chinese leaders. "If the allegations are true," Merkel said, "it would be for me a clear contradiction as to what I consider to be trusting cooperation between agencies and partners."
After a long holiday weekend, the Obama administration was forced to address the growing diplomatic rift, which saw the U.S. ambassador summoned to the German Foreign Ministry on the Fourth of July just hours before he was supposed to be welcoming guests to a party at the American Embassy in Berlin. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest wouldn't confirm the allegations about U.S. spying efforts in Germany during his regular press conference on Monday, citing the ongoing German investigation and a practice of not commenting on alleged U.S. intelligence operations. However, Earnest stressed that "the relationship that the United States has with Germany is incredibly important," and he promised, "We're going to work with the Germans to resolve this situation appropriately."
The exposure of the double agent, who hasn't been publicly identified, comes at a particularly inopportune moment, when the political wounds were still raw over revelations of NSA spying that sparked large public protests in Germany. Merkel and her coalition partners were just getting back to the business of normal political relations with the Obama administration and repairing a decades-long relationship with one of their country's largest trading partners and most stalwart political and military allies. Now, that's all up in the air.
"This threatens to derail the efforts of Merkel and other senior coalition partners to get back on track with the trans-Atlantic relationship," said Thorsten Benner, the co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Berlin. While the calls to kick out CIA officials and the publicized haranguing of the American ambassador are largely symbolic gestures, public outrage over the spying could force the German government to reshape its relationship with Washington. During a visit to Mongolia, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that if the allegations turned out to be true, "that's also a political matter, where one can't just go back to the daily routine."
Political elites and other outspoken supporters of a strong U.S-German alliance are now "publicly being proven wrong," said Olaf Boehnke, who runs the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. For those who've been particularly supportive of freer trade and investment between the two countries, "It's getting harder and harder to argue now that we should have the United States as a partner," he added. "It's a reality check that this isn't about friendship any longer; it's a very neutral, cost-benefit related partnership."
And Germans are more likely to ask what they're getting out of it. "There was always some kind of anti-American sentiment in the German public, but this is skyrocketing," Boehnke said. "It's really worrying."
Benner questioned the Obama administration's decision to keep up its spying on the German government at such a sensitive time, particularly given the damage done by the high-profile Snowden revelations. "The political consequences for the U.S. are much, much higher than any potential enlightenment that could have come from these leaked documents," Benner said.
Still, German officials are kidding themselves if they think the United States won't keep spying on them. The exposure of the double agent follows Berlin's failed attempt to forge a so-called "no-spying" agreement with the United States, similar to the one it has with the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Under the pact, all five nations generally agree not to monitor each other's officials and conduct spying operations on each other's soil. (The United States and other close allies, including Israel, routinely gather intelligence on one another.)
"They were pretty humiliatingly rebuffed," Benner said. The United States has for years kept Germany out of the club, which grew out of the ashes of World War II and took root during the Cold War. Berlin was turned away once again, and that stung.
The U.S. relationship with Germany is "built on a lot of shared trust," said Earnest, the White House spokesman. "It's built on friendship. And it's built on shared values." But apparently it's not strong enough to bring Germany into the exclusive no-spying club, or to halt operations against its officials.
Indeed, the case of the double agent may end up revealing more about German impressions of American spying than about the inner workings of the German government.
"Germans are more romantic about relationships than the Americans are. They think that if you're in a relationship, you shouldn't need to spy on each other," Benner said. Added Boehnke, "You could blame Germans for being naive.... We have two very different perceptions of how the intelligence business is operated."
John Hudson contributed reporting.
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