Spy scandal confirms Germans’ growing mistrust of Washington

July 11, 2014

United States president Barack Obama discusses Ukraine with National Security staff, Feb. 28, 2014. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

The name “Intelligence Agency” often seems to be an oxymoron because spies frequently do incredibly dumb things.

But before labelling the entire profession a collection of buffoons, it’s as well to remember that most intelligence agency work is divided into two main, distinct areas. There is the gathering of information through human spies, electronic surveillance or from open sources. Then there is the analysis of that intelligence into assessments of the implications that political masters can use as part of the policy-making process.

Usually it’s revelations about the information-gathering process that gets intelligence agencies into trouble. Far less often does the public get a look at the resulting analytical documents passed to political leaders. One recent exception is the so-called “Dodgy Dossier,” a political document used by the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify joining the Americans in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The dossier was based in part on the assessment of information about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction programs prepared by Blair’s Joint Intelligence Committee.

But if one looks at the two recent publications of masses of information from United States intelligence agencies that have caused so much embarrassment, both are archives of raw information, not analysis. There’s the 2010 posting of tens of thousands of State Department messages by WikiLeaks, and last year’s publishing of hosts of National Security Agency (NSA) electronic surveillance intercepts by contractor Edward Snowden. What was done with all these screeds of raw information, if anything, we don’t know.

Even so, these leaks show that just the act of information-gathering can be damaging enough, undermining the confidence of friends and revealing intelligence agencies’ capabilities.

American spy agencies in particular seem unable to make the distinction between what they can do and what they should do or, more precisely, what they should not do. President Barrack Obama has pledged to reform the entire U.S. intelligence establishment, but going on some recent events, the agencies still seem to be operating on cruise control. They continue to gather up whatever information is obtainable without questioning the means involved or the likely value of the product.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Official political party photo by Armin Linnartz, Creative Commons
Angela Merkel, official photo by Armin Linnartz, Creative Commons

The current breech of fraternal relations between the U.S. and Germany is a context in point. Last year’s leak of NSA material by Snowden included information that the electronic surveillance organization had been bugging the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Late last month, German outrage got another jolt when it was found that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been buying secret documents from an employee of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst. If that was not enough, on Wednesday, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police raided the home of a Defence Ministry employee, who is also suspected of spying for Washington. If true, this allegation is particularly heinous and embarrassing for Washington because it seems the CIA was buying copies of secret documents being prepared for a parliamentary committee investigating the implications of the Snowden revelations.

Spy versus spy games are one thing, but spying on the work of a parliamentary committee of one of Washington’s closest allies is worse than stupid. It is very rude.

Berlin has been as measured as possible in its reaction. The CIA station head in Berlin was asked on Thursday to leave Germany. Many reports have described this as an “expulsion.” This is not accurate. If the chief had been “expelled” this would have been considerably higher up the scale of diplomatic outrage than simply being asked to leave. Even so, it is a significant measure of Berlin’s growing weariness with the uglier sides of American global activities that it made this public censure of its American allies.

These incidents have added fuel to an already smouldering debate in Germany about the future nature of its alliance with Washington. A recent public opinion survey by Germany’s Körber Foundation asked respondents with which countries they thought Berlin should co-operate in future. The U.S. was named by 56 per cent of respondents, but 53 per cent chose Russia. Similarly, a recent survey by the news magazine Der Spiegel found 40 per cent of respondents saying they would like to see Berlin co-operate more closely with Moscow.

This reflects German public sentiments evident in recent weeks over the upheaval in Ukraine, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Germans, with Chancellor Merkel reflecting the public mood, were far less censorious of Russian President Vladimir Putin than were other western Europeans, Washington or Canada.

German questioning of its continued cultural and political compatibility with Washington began with the end of the Cold War in 1989, the reunification of Germany and the removal of the security pressure that had joined Washington and the then-Bonn government at the hip since 1949.

The questioning became a rift in 2003 when Germany, like Canada, refused to join in the invasion of Iraq, though it also contributed to the United Nations-endorsed actions in Afghanistan. The contempt in which President George W. Bush and his cohorts were held by Germany’s political classes cannot be exaggerated.

So there was, as in many other places, excessive optimism that the election of Obama would end America’s eight years of hoodlum disregard for any international norms of law or the sanctity of human life. But Obama has proved to be a great disappointment to Germans as he has elsewhere.

Because of their horror of their country’s Nazi history, modern Germans have adopted a culture of political morality that can sometimes seem excessive. But Obama’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, as he promised he would, and particularly his use of missile-armed drones to assassinate suspected terrorists rankles with many Germans. The Snowden revelations about NSA’s tapping of Merkel’s phone and the CIA’s subversion of German intelligence officers only add to the perception that Washington’s super power culture has gone off the rails. It’s not a matter of whether it’s Bush or Obama in the White House, there are destructive spores in the brickwork.

Just because Germans feel betrayed by Washington does not mean they are going to rush into Putin’s arms. Part of what is happening is the evolution of a fresh, independent international stance by Germany as it gets used to discarding the sense of shameful inferiority after the Second World War, and accepting its role as the essential hub around which the European Union revolves.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

Related and further reading

Leave Ukraine to the Russians by Jonathan Manthorpe on Facts and Opinions, March, 2014 
What Edward Snowden said to European Parliamentarians by Deborah Jones on Facts and Opinions, March, 2014 
Germany’s Choice: Will It Be America or Russia? by Markus Feldenkirchen, Christiane Hoffmann and René Pfister, Der Spiegel 
English version of the the Körber Stiftung site.

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