NSA and Germany

The continuing Snowden revelations, including the reported interception of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone conversations, have sparked a major controversy in Germany and Europe that has the potential to burden U.S. relations with its most significant partner in Europe. There is a sad irony that, while the National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly has been picking up the conversations of key European partners like Merkel, the Intelligence Community remains tone deaf to the broad ramifications of such behavior, which belongs more to twentieth century Machtpolitik than to the global networked system in which we find ourselves today.

The U.S. Intelligence Community was constructed in the Second World War and the Cold War with the goal of defeating fascism and containing communism. This gave rise to agencies and activities designed to monitor a recently defeated ally and a rising hostile superpower. Special “friends” like the British were accorded virtual “no spying agreements” based on shared values and sacrifices—not to mention assistance in helping to set up American intelligence. These so-called “Five-Eyes” rules have continued to this day. But, in a twenty-first century marked less by clear enemies than by an expanding list of partners, such few exceptions to the spy-versus-spy game seem sadly outdated.

Today, Germany is the economic and political leader in Europe. It will be key to achieving a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is an administration priority. If a more potent European security partner is to be built—something Washington desperately needs when facing many challenges on the periphery of Europe—then Germany will be needed. The recent Munich Security Conference provided hopeful signs that the new Merkel-led government is considering a more engaged posture toward new security threats. It would be tragic if this newfound interest in partnering with the United States were cut short by the Intelligence Community’s unwillingness to adapt its intelligence sharing arrangements to new circumstances. Yet, the sense one has is that senior U.S. officials are taking the attitude of “man-up, there still is gambling in this Casino.” U.S. understanding of the special sensibilities of Angela Merkel, who lived through the Stasi era, appear to be disingenuous, as no real compromises appear to have been struck.

In our view, our intelligence relationship is very much out of sync with partnering with Germany on a range of issues—e.g., Iran, Russia, Ukraine, terrorism, or nuclear weapons proliferation to name the most obvious. Washington runs the risk of undermining close cooperation on these and other issues if it does not recognize that spying on Germany cannot continue in the old style.

Germany has been a good partner, assisting the United States on some of its most pressing intelligence challenges, but often being treated to a second-class status based on the old narrative of a defeated and divided country that was not quite trustworthy. This old narrative belies the fact that Germany is no enemy. U.S. intelligence resources should be directed principally at true threats and not just at countries that are sometimes at odds with the United States. Even during the height of U.S.-German disagreements over the Iraq War, German military and intelligence services quietly facilitated American military operations at some risk to their own standing with their political masters. Such goodwill can be destroyed quickly by cavalier attitudes toward their need for a new relationship. We would do well to consider steps to restore trust with German officials and begin defining a new relationship that can support an ally who promises to be the leading actor in Europe.

A place to start would be to re-fashion the outdated “Five-Eyes” concept to include more key partners. One need only mention that Germany and France were major troop contributors to the coalition intervention in Afghanistan. The recent visit by French President François Hollande highlighted the commonality of interests major allies have with the United States, which should be shaping intelligence relationships—not the other way around! A visit later this year by senior German officials should provide an opportunity for a serious re-engineering of our intelligence sharing relationships to better suit the prospect of more multilateral operations that combine American and European capabilities. Germany will expect no less, nor should we.

Dr. Roger George teaches at the National War College and is a former National Intelligence Officer for Europe. Mr. Joe Wippl teaches at Boston University and was a former senior CIA official, who served extensively in Western Europe.

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