Why Spy on Merkel?

Robert Gerald Livingston

Robert Gerald Livingston

Dr. Robert Gerald Livingston is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. He was the founding director of AICGS from 1983 to 1994.

James R. Clapper, Jr., Director of National Intelligence, answered that question in testimony before the U.S. Congress: “As long as I have been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions in whatever form is a basic tenet of what we collect and analyze.”

As a flood of revelations from the whistleblowing U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have shown, Germany is hardly exempt from this collection. For decades, the NSA has been vacuuming up and storing huge amounts of phone calls, e-mails, and internet data from German citizens, businesses, and top politicians and government officials. Snowden revealed that the NSA’s efforts included tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone since 2002—even before she became chancellor.

Germany Affronted

Humiliated by what she called a “breach of trust” by a close German ally, Merkel phoned President Barack Obama—from a landline in her office—to complain. Obama promised that her cell phone was not now being tapped by the NSA and would not be in the future, implicitly admitting that it had been for the past eleven years.

Subsequent revelations, based mainly on materials Snowden supplied to Der Spiegel, indicate that the wiretapping was coordinated from secure rooms atop the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt am Main and the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, located in Pariser Platz, just a stone’s throw from Merkel’s chancellery, the Bundestag, and most federal ministries. These rooms housed NSA-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “special collection teams,” who performed the surveillance.

The German media and the German public vented outrage and indignation. The result: the worst crisis in German-American relations for decades—at least since Germany’s refusal to support the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Was the cost of such damage to this relationship conceivably outweighed by the benefits from the intelligence collected from the Merkel tap? Without knowing what the tap yielded, it is hard to say. Moreover, is it worthwhile to be spying so extensively on Germans by a NSA on, as Secretary of State John Kerry called it, “automatic pilot”?

German Strength and Interests

Germany is an economic powerhouse, the world’s third biggest economy with an export surplus far bigger than any other country’s except China. It does not, as one Financial Times columnist noted, shy away from power politics when it comes to protecting its export industries, such as cars, chemicals, and machinery. It is the third largest weapons exporter in the world. It is the decisive voice in European Union (EU) policymaking. Merkel is by all odds one of the world’s three or four most influential political leaders today.

During the Cold War American and German priority foreign policy objectives coincided and were simple: counter Soviet expansionism and influence in Europe. With over 200,000 troops stationed in the Federal Republic to protect it, Washington had great leverage that country.

Collaboration between the CIA and Germany’s foreign intelligence outfit, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has always been close. Indeed, the CIA fathered the BND, supervising and financing it from

1946 until West Germany gained sovereignty in 1955. (It never, however, accorded the BND the same level of trust as it did, for example, British intelligence, fearing—justifiably, as it turned out—penetration by Soviet and East German spy services.) CIA-BND collaboration became closer after 9/11 to combat terrorism; the BND has for years been supplying the NSA with large amounts of its intelligence intercepts from outside the Federal Republic. British intelligence, a document from Snowden reveals, admires the BND for its “good access to the heart of the internet.”


German and American divergences in foreign affairs have been growing and Washington’s leverage in Berlin has been declining since the Cold War ended. With it, Germany’s need for American military protection has declined as well. The divergences stem in great part from Germany’s extensive trade and investment.

In the case of three countries in particular, German interests may run counter to U. S. objectives:

  • While Merkel has criticized Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, Russia provides a large export market and its natural gas supplies are essential to Germany. After stepping down as chancellor, Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) member Gerhard Schröder, became chairman of Nord Strom, a pipeline subsidiary of Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian energy conglomerate—a position unthinkable for any other western political leader and a matter of concern, perhaps greater concern, if Merkel now forms a Grand Coalition with the SPD, as seems likely.
  • China provides an even larger market for German business and its relations with Berlin have been growing ever closer. Merkel has paid numerous visits to China, usually accompanied by a retinue of corporate executives, who sign deals in Beijing.
  • Iran is a third country with which Germany has long-standing business connections. In the past, German companies have supplied much equipment to Iran’s nuclear industry.

In all such cases, Washington surely regards it as more important than ever to understand what Germany thinks and intends to achieve, and what policy shifts Merkel might be contemplating, on economic sanctions against Iran, for instance.

Divergences stem too from German unwillingness to get involved politically, much less militarily, outside Europe. It aligned with Russia and China, rather than the United States, in the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, when it went so far as to withdraw German warships from the Mediterranean. Furthermore, it has stayed far away from the 2012-2013 Syrian crisis.

Retaliation by Berlin?

Did Obama know about the tap on Merkel’s cell phone? White House officials deny it. Clapper and General Keith C. Alexander, Director of the NSA, testified that senior White House national security staff members were informed. It is hard to believe that in briefings before phone calls or visits from her, like that when Obama awarded her the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the president was not told or did not ask. If he didn’t know or ask, he was not exercising much oversight over NSA, where half of the bits of intelligence in his daily brief originated. On the other hand, if he did know, then he has not been thinking enough about the balance between the benefits of information obtained from the Merkel tap and the political costs that might come from the eventual exposure of that tap.

Unlike Obama, Merkel is very much a hands-on and detail-oriented chief executive, devoting close attention to political tactics and to deployment of government resources. She is the methodical head of her government and her party, texting incessantly to her colleagues. As furor about the NSA’s data collection in Germany has mounted among politicians, the media, and the public, Merkel has remained calm. She has, to be sure, switched cell phones from an old Nokia to a new, encrypted Blackberry Z10. Clearly she is seeking to avoid a blazing row with a chief ally, even as members of her cabinet and of the Bundestag issue retaliatory threats.

These threats range from expelling American diplomats and charging Germany’s counterintelligence agency, the Office for Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), with keeping a closer eye on CIA and NSA operations to delaying current negotiations on an U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or including provisions for data protection in that agreement. The Bundestag has scheduled a hearing on NSA activities for November 18, a session that conceivably could include testimony by Snowden himself.

Damage Control and Beyond

How do we get out of the present sticky patch of the German-American relationship? Damage control is essential. It is vital to preserve the long-standing collaboration between intelligence agencies against terrorism. The immediate objective should be to restore trust with Angela Merkel, who has emerged stronger than ever from a smashing national election victory last September and who for the past few years has been moving more foreign policy decision-making away from the foreign office and into her chancellery. Obama will be dealing with her for all of his final three years as president.

To help allay outrage among Germans, Obama should issue a public apology to Merkel as a supplement to the private one he surely gave her during their awkward phone conversation a few weeks ago. He should rein in the hitherto unfettered power of the NSA, making it more accountable and transparent.

Most important of all, he should direct American intelligence agencies to elevate Germany into the Anglophone old boys club for espionage. This “Five Eyes” cooperation among the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada dates back to World War II, when these services worked together against Germany and Japan. Five Eyes cooperation means no spying on each other, mutual information on spy targets, and more intensive intelligence sharing.

While the Cold War’s closeness cannot be restored, a failure in Washington to control the damage, reinvigorate cooperation between the German and American intelligence agencies, encourage Berlin to devote more resources to the BND, and restore trust between governments would thwart the overriding American aspiration with regard to Germany—persuading it to shoulder a great share of the global security burden.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.