In an article written in this space a few days ago, we documented how extensive US spying operations in Germany have become. The spying has gotten so pervasive that Germany has become the largest listening post for the NSA in Europe by far. Yesterday more evidence of how damaging these efforts have been was disclosed by the German government.
At least one German intelligence officer had been recruited by the CIA to spy for the US in Germany. In response to this transgression, the German authorities have taken the unprecedented step of expelling the CIA’s Berlin station chief from the country. A station chief is usually the top spy in a country.
That the ousting was publicly announced by Chancellor Angela Merkel is noteworthy and may have ushered in new tactics to deal with the sense of anger and betrayal felt by the Germans.
The expulsion of a station chief- the ranking American intelligence officer in a foreign country is an exceedingly rare move by an ally. “It’s one thing to kick lower-level officers out, it’s another thing to kick the station chief out,” said a former CIA officer familiar with European operations. The station chief in question was working undercover and it was his predecessor who recruited the German intelligence officer.
This is just the latest in a string of embarrassing spy situations attributed to the Obama administration, and may signal a cooling off of relations to the once close allies. Merkel has been in touch with Obama on past related issues including disclosures that her phone conversations were spied on. The chancellor had received assurances that the practices would be curtailed but this latest episode was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The CIA fears that the move could be just the first step in a more comprehensive plan by the Germans to rein-in US surveillance efforts in the country. In monitoring CIA operatives in the country, German intelligence apparatuses could tap spies’ phones or tail them in cars. Despite the latest fiasco, it is unlikely that Germany would ever become downright hostile to America and its spy network. But it might slowly descend to the category of ally such as Turkey, India and France- nominal allies but difficult spying terrain for American spies.
The latest episode is another example of the failure of the Obama administration when it sorely needs an ally like Germany, and it marks a low point in diplomatic relations. This is at a time when Obama needs consistent cooperation on a wide range of sensitive issues. These include Iran’s nuclear program, the Ukraine crisis and the complicated trans-Atlantic trade agreement. Obama bristled at the delicate but clumsy situation created by the CIA. He has maintained that he doesn’t have to resort to spying on foreign leaders- he can simply pick up the phone to gauge their feeling on an issue. Yesterday’s revelations by Germany call that assessment by Obama into question.
In the recent BestVPN news story cited above it was pointed out that the American spying presence in Germany was too pervasive and raised questions of how it could be tolerated by the German public. It is in light of such unbridled surveillance activities by the NSA and their ilk that this expulsion takes place.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert cited questions which have gone unanswered for months about the activities of US intelligence services in Germany. “The federal government,” he said, “takes these incidents very seriously.” John O. Brennan, the CIA director has attempted to placate German officials and stressed the obvious- that close cooperation with Germany “in all areas” is paramount. He did this while not referring to the banishing of the CIA station chief.
The Germans for their part believe they have exercised extreme patience. After all, it has been a year since Edward Snowden revealed the tapping Of Ms. Merkel’s cellphone. At the time they called for a “no spy” agreement similar to the ones enjoyed by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But this request has gotten nowhere and has frustrated the Germans as the Americans deny that this was ever a consideration.
It should be noted here that to be part of such a group, Germany would have to significantly step-up surveillance activities and level of cooperation with the US efforts. They’ve apparently bristled at this. Adding fuel to the fire is last week’s arrest of the German intelligence officer.
Amid this turmoil, there is talk by German officials of creating a “Germany only” segment of the internet to keep German emails and web searches from going across American-owned wires and networks. For many tech savvy Germans, VPNs have provided a measure of much needed privacy protection. This VPN use is likely to spike with the latest disclosures.
For many in Germany the question of having a sympathetic ear in Washington remains unanswered. For them it’s as if nothing has changed in the past year- that the Obama administration’s views on spying in Germany haven’t changed. Clemens Binninger, a member of Ms. Merkel’s party, said the decision to oust the station chief was “a political reaction of the government to the lack of willingness of American authorities to help clear up any questions” over American spying in Germany.
It remains to be seen what lasting impact the latest moves by the Germans will have on a formal US response or change in policy. But given the depth and breadth of US intelligence facilities either presently in Germany or on the drawing board, it is likely that a nervous status quo will prevail.