Yes, Berlin has its own spying scandals, but don’t expect Germany to forgive the NSA

August 20

The former monitoring base of the National Security Agency (NSA), which belongs to the German Federal Intelligence Agency (BND), in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, on June 6, 2014. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

For politicians in Washington, the German uproar over allegations that the NSA had spied on Merkel and collected the data of millions of Germans was remarkable. The usually calm Chancellor Angela Merkel angrily rejected American explanations and forced the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country after further allegations were made public. German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble went even further, saying publicly that he wanted to cry over "such stupidity."

Tensions remain high. Last weekend, however, it became much harder for the country's politicians to criticize the United States. Der Spiegel, using a document from 2009, reported that that the German foreign intelligence agency BND had deliberately spied on fellow NATO member Turkey. According to the magazine and another newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, German agents had also “inadvertently” intercepted calls made by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry during their respective tenures as secretaries of state.

That certainly doesn't look good.

“There is gloating in Washington over what some would see as German hypocrisy over its angry reaction to U.S. spying in Germany,” Stephen Szabo, the Transatlantic Academy director at the German Marshall Fund, explains. “It is perceived as an embarrassment for the German government,” Joachim Krause, a professor of international politics at the University of Kiel, adds.

Things are not so straightforward, however. According to German media reports, it seems unlikely that the eavesdropping on Clinton and Kerry was comprehensive. Der Spiegel's report also explains that the eavesdropping on Clinton was a "by-catch" – a term used to describe unintentional interceptions – and that afterwards high-ranking members of the German government “expressed deep frustration over the matter."

While spying on U.S. officials might be an unfortunate mistake, the targeting of Turkey could put Berlin in a more difficult position. Turkey is a NATO ally and there are 1.4 million Turks living in Germany. “German-Turkish relations are likely to deteriorate as a consequence,” Krause explains. Turkey summoned Germany’s ambassador Monday, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the allegations “unacceptable, inexcusable." The case could also raise questions about Germany's loyalty to other NATO allies.

Despite this, political reactions in Berlin have been remarkably cautious, with Merkel refusing to comment on the matter. Even government critics seem calm. Opposition politician Juergen Trittin had accused Merkel and two of her cabinet members last year of behaving like “three wise monkeys” and turning a blind eye during the NSA scandal. Trittin does not seem to be equally outraged when it comes to German intelligence services, however. “One cannot blame an intelligence service for collecting insights [in Turkey]," he told German newspaper Berliner Zeitung. According to him, Germany’s security is immediately threatened by Turkey’s proximity to Syria and the related danger of a terror attack in Germany.

Such arguments seem similar to those used by U.S. officials to defend their activities in Germany –  the 9/11 attacks had partially been planned in Hamburg, remember. But despite some similarities, the spying activities of the U.S. and Germany should be distinguished. The NSA is accused of targeting Merkel’s mobile phone for years, paying double agents in German governmental institutions, as well as spying on millions of German data connections. Some of these activities seem to have been executed from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, which is in close proximity to Merkel’s chancellery as well as the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.

Turkey is neither a close ally of Germany nor are the eavesdropping efforts believed to be as sophisticated. Furthermore, Der Spiegel reported that the Clinton transcript had originally been ordered to be destroyed by senior agency officials. Remarkably, the agent responsible for its destruction was Markus R. – an official who was arrested by German authorities in July and is accused of having spied on the BND for the United States. Markus R. is believed to have forwarded the sensitive transcript to his American contacts.

Philip Crowley, a former assistant secretary and spokesman at the Department of State who dealt with the release of classified diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, says there is a hope within the intelligence community "to get beyond the politics and back to business." Is that possible? Not necessarily.

"Germans had seen their relationship with the U.S. as one of trust between friends and would not see a real parallel to what they are doing in Turkey," says German Marshall Fund expert Szabo. Professor Krause is equally doubtful. “The U.S. has contributed to the uproar German politicians have obsessed about for months by not reacting sensitively enough," he explains. "By now, the anger has grown to an extent where it has become difficult for German politicians to remain nuanced and objective.”

Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at The Washington Post.
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Rick Noack · August 20