Allies behaving badly

Daniel W. Drezner
July 11
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Pedestrians pass the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on July 7. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Based on my years of research into the arcane crevices of international relations, there is almost zero downside for U.S. allies to complain about how Washington is treating them.  The party not in the executive branch usually plays up the alliance frictions to highlight the foreign policy incompetence of the party in power, the administration in power makes a gesture of goodwill, and the ally feels almost zero repercussions.  See, for example, Bahrain behaving badly. Of course, sometimes our allies and partners really do have legitimate beefs with the United States.  For example, the Obama administration’s Africa Summit seems like a swell idea in theory, but the execution seems really blinkered.  Why bother having a lot of heads of state fly into Africa and then not have the president meet privately with  them?  That’s just poor staff work on the American’s part.

Which brings me to the latest espionage contretemps with Germany.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

Germany publicly told the top U.S. spy official here to leave, a rare and forceful act illustrating deep anger over revelations of American espionage that are disrupting one of Washington’s chief alliances….

In the two cases that surfaced over the past week, an employee of the Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND, and an official at the Defense Ministry are being investigated on suspicion of passing secrets to the U.S., people briefed on the matters say.

Officials and high-ranking members of parliament described deep frustration in the German government that Washington, despite months of discussion over the need to patch up relations, hasn’t seriously addressed the latest allegations publicly or privately.

“U.S. policy has simply been to stonewall, to answer no questions, and to leave Germany alone with this problem,” said Hans-Christian Ströbele, an opposition member of the special parliamentary committee that was briefed by senior German security and government officials on Thursday. “There is substantial anger in the government.”….

A top German intelligence official told the German parliamentary committee that oversees intelligence services that a call from Mr. Brennan earlier this week shed little light on the current investigations, according to people present at his briefing. The official said Mr. Brennan offered little but platitudes about the value of the trans-Atlantic alliance and expressed frustration about the bad press, according to the account.

This does not sound like the United States has behaved well … but Greg Miller and Stephanie Kirchner’s account in The Post has a slightly different angle:

In ordering the CIA station chief to leave, Germany resorted to a form of retaliation that is occasionally employed by espionage adversaries such as the United States and Russia, but rarely by such a close ally.

“I can’t recall ever getting to the point where a friendly service actually ejected somebody,” said John A. Rizzo, who spent more than three decades at the CIA and served as its acting general counsel. “The Germans must feel compelled to do this for political reasons, because there are certainly ways to convey one’s displeasure without taking this kind of overt step.”

Former officials described the outgoing CIA station chief as an agency veteran, a German speaker who has held a series of overseas posts as well as assignments at headquarters in the agency’s European division.

Before ordering him out, Germany “had to make a calculation of what they were going to lose — they get a substantial amount of intelligence from us,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who worked closely with Berlin and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “There will be people in the [U.S.] intelligence community who will want to say, ‘That’s it.’ ”

Former U.S. officials said the agency pulled back on certain spying operations last year amid concern about the fallout from information leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. At the same time, the former officials said, the latest arrest and raids indicate that Germany has stepped up its defenses and efforts to root out U.S. spies.

So this account suggests that maybe Germany overreacted?  But then we get to Foreign Policy’s account, which marries these two versions:

“This is an effort by the German government to signal to their U.S. counterparts, ‘Enough is enough,’” said Thorsten Benner, the co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Berlin. “Spying on allies comes with real costs for the relationship, in terms of an erosion of trust and a growing anti-Americanism among the German public.”

Benner said that the Germans expelled the station chief — a “mini nuclear diplomatic option” — because German officials weren’t getting a satisfactory response from the Americans about their U.S. spying complaints. “They were hearing nothing but platitudes and stonewalling from Brennan & Co., and no acknowledgement that this needs to stop,” he said, referring to CIA Director John Brennan. The message that German government officials are hearing, Benner said, is that “the U.S. government refuses to take this seriously.”

So who’s behaving badly here?  Are the Germans cynically and hypocritically complaining about ill treatment when their intelligence services are still cooperating furiously with the NSA, or has the United States blundered again?  If the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey and Nadette De Visser are correct … then one has to conclude the CIA bungled again: “retired senior CIA officers, asked on background what they think went wrong, are appalled at the evident lack of tradecraft.”  

So, to sum up: the CIA, in deciding to engage in the most high-wire espionage activity of spying on an ally, relied on a guy who seemed tailor made to get blown at some point, didn’t inform the president when he was talking to Merkel last week, and then responded to German outrage with nothing but platitudes.  Yeah, that sounds like standard operating procedure at work in Langley, during a period in German-American relations when everything is non-standard.  And yet another blow to U.S. hypocritical power.

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