11/30/2010 01:32 PM

A 'Teflon' Chancellor and 'Wildcard' Foreign Minister

How America Views the Germans

By , John Goetz, , and

The State Department dispatches that have now been released show just how critically the US views Germany. They see Chancellor Merkel as "risk averse" and Foreign Minister Westerwelle as a "wild card." The US Embassy in Berlin has informants at all levels of German government.

The secret informant who handed over internal documents from German coalition negotiations to the Americans in October 2009 doesn't want his cover blown. And the US has been careful to protect his identity. They simply call him "a well-placed source."

The source is a member of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), the junior coalition partner to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Philip Murphy, the US ambassador in Berlin, describes him as a "young, up-and-coming party loyalist. The cable is numbered 229153, it was sent on Oct. 9, 2009 and is marked "confidential." Murphy never thought that it could be made public.

The cable was sent just 12 days following German general elections and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in the process of negotiating a governing coalition with FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle. Germany was in the process of charting a new course, and it now looks like the US government was a fly on the wall. Murphy, the cables make clear, was proud of that fact.

On Oct. 7, the informant met with US diplomats. He had brought along a stack of internal documents: lists of working groups and their members, schedules and handwritten memos. He had also noted who had said what during the meetings -- he had been tasked by the FDP with keeping minutes of the talks.

He told the Americans that there had been an internal argument over disarmament, and that Westerwelle wanted to see the United States remove its nuclear weapons from German soil. Then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, of Merkel's Christian Democrats, countered that the weapons serve as a deterrent against Iran. Westerwelle, according to the informant, had answered that this wasn't true, because the nuclear warheads couldn't even reach Iran. Merkel, Murphy writes in his memo, eventually cut off the debate by pointing out that German unilateralism on disarmament would lead nowhere.

'Happy to Share His Observations'

The FDP's subsequent anger with Schäuble was intense. The source said that Schäuble was "neurotic" and "saw threats everywhere." The FDP, he later added, viewed him as "an angry old man" who sought to portray himself as the CDU's "grey eminence" in order to expand his influence. The FDP informant hoped that the CDU would also view Schäuble's role as "counterproductive." At the end of the meeting, he handed over several copies of documents from his files on the coalition negotiations. "Post will seek meetings with source after the plenary negotiation rounds to see if additional readouts are possible," an obviously satisfied Murphy cabled to Washington.

The unknown German government informant must be bold and unscrupulous, or perhaps merely naïve and power hungry. Who knows exactly what motivates a party employee to reveal the details of his party's coalition negotiations to US diplomats?

Murphy did his best to provide an explanation to his boss, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The source, he writes, had "offered (the embassy employee) internal party documents in the past. Excited with his role as FDP negotiations note taker, he seemed happy to share his observations and insights and read to us directly from his notes."

A few days later, on Oct. 15, the informant was ready to deliver his next batch of information. This time he had brought along a list of 15 items that the FDP wanted to see included in the coalition agreement. Once again they included calls for "entering negotiations with our allies" over the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany in the near future. How important is nuclear disarmament to Westerwelle, the US diplomats asked? Very important, the FDP source responded. He also said, though, that Westerwelle wanted to do Merkel the favor of enabling her to be elected chancellor before she traveled to Washington November 2.

Details of the German Decision-Making Process

Once again, Murphy sends off a dispatch to Washington -- the confidential cable is titled: "Germany Could Have New Coalition Government Within Two Weeks." It is coded "Noforn," meaning it is not to be seen be foreign governments, and is marked priority.

The cables clearly indicate that the source provided the US with details of the German government's decision-making process even before the coalition agreement had been reached. Should Merkel's government now begin searching for a traitor within its own ranks? And how should Berlin react to American diplomats who maintain sources at the upper levels of German politics, behaving at times in Berlin as if they were employees of an intelligence agency?

The two cables from Murphy are part of the most comprehensive leak in the history of diplomacy. They come from within the US State Department, two of a total of 251,287 State Department cables that the organization WikiLeaks has obtained, likely from the same source as the previous documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the wake of the military secrets that made headlines worldwide, most recently in late October, these new revelations focus on the second column of American power politics: diplomacy.

For the US government, it must feel as though they have been robbed of their clothes. The US has been exposed on the marketplace of global politics. The confidential dispatches begin with a cable from Dec. 28, 1966 and end on Feb. 28, 2010. They include situational reports from US Embassies across the globe sent to Washington. Some are also instructions from the State Department sent to its overseas posts. Most of them are from the administration of US President George W. Bush and from the beginning of the presidency of his successor, Barack Obama. Just from the year 2008, the year of Obama's election victory, there are 49,446 dispatches. A total of 1,719 of them come from the US Embassy in Berlin.

A Network of US Embassy Informants

The emergence of the documents is a disaster of global proportions for US foreign policy, one that will also affect Washington's relations with Berlin. Faith in the Americans' ability to protect their diplomatic traffic is deeply shaken -- that alone will change German-American relations. A superpower's diplomacy has never been revealed to quite the same degree.

But the secret documents also paint a picture of a political landscape in Germany covered by a network of US Embassy informants that even reaches into the capitals of Germany's states. It is a shameful portrait of a political class that has nothing better to do that to go behind the backs of others with the Americans -- to engage in conspiracy, denunciation and obstruction.

The US diplomats reported back to Washington when Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle complained about Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. They made note of it when Guttenberg went after Westerwelle yet again, or when SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles criticized fellow Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The uncomplimentary reports were sent on to Wasthington. The US, the documents make clear, knows more about the secrets of German politics than many a German politician.

The diplomatic cables also reveal something else: The trans-Atlantic relationship is not in very good shape. The US view of German politics is distanced and cautious. American diplomats have never really hit it off with Chancellor Angela Merkel. They discount Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), because of his ignorance and populism. They feel that Development Minister Dirk Niebel (FDP) was a strange choice for the post. And Foreign Minister Westerwelle? US envoys are particularly critical of Germany's top diplomat. The secret cables describe him as incompetent, vain and critical of the United States, and as a burden on the trans-Atlantic relationship.

The German Foreign Minister's 'Lack of Gravitas'

America's concerns grew as the 2009 general elections approached. Westerwelle had given a speech that spring to the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a dress rehearsal for his possible future role as foreign minister. In addition, US diplomats spoke with government officials in Berlin about Westerwelle, talked with senior FDP officials and invited Westerwelle himself to the US Embassy -- which proved more difficult than expected. The FDP chairman insisted that he would only attend the meeting if the ambassador met with him personally. Nine days before the election, on Sept. 18, 2009, Ambassador Murphy sent his conclusions in a cable to Washingtion.

"Westerwelle's DGAP remarks provided us with a glimpse of Westerwellian thought. They were short on substance, suggesting that Westerwelle's command of complex foreign and security policy issues still requires deepening if he is to successfully represent German interests on the world stage.... By his own admission, Westerwelle has never seriously harbored a fascination for international affairs. FDP Bundestag member Marina Schuster told (an embassy employee) recently that foreign policy is not Westerwelle's 'true love,' but that he will take this position due to its high profile and as it is tied to the position of Vice-Chancellor.

"As one well known foreign policy analyst in Berlin told (an embassy employee), he lacks the gravitas and is seen as too opportunistic to be trusted as foreign minister. At the conclusion of his DGAP speech, several (German Foreign Ministry) desk officers remarked to (the embassy employee) that they were not yet persuaded that Westerwelle had the 'foreign and security policy expertise necessary' to become a successful Foreign Minister, although they had no doubts about his ability to get up to speed quickly. There was a consensus among desk officers -- driven, perhaps, by political bias -- that Westerwelle was arrogant and too fixated on maintaining his 'cult of personality.'

Tough Love Diplomacy

"Westerwelle has found it hard to conceal his resentment toward Washington based on his feeling that neither its top leadership nor the Embassy in Berlin had courted him during his time in opposition.... Also revealing was Westerwelle's slight edge on his sense of humor, first charming us by inquiring about Secretary Clinton's health after her elbow injury and next joking that he would ask the Secretary if the Embassy had conveyed his best wishes."

The report ends with a somewhat optimistic outlook: "If Westerwelle becomes Foreign Minister, we can expect tough love diplomacy from someone who prides himself in being our 'close' friend, but who in reality remains skeptical about the US and its foreign policy objectives. Westerwelle will be a friend, but he will not hesitate to criticize us if vital German interests are at stake or being challenged. Westerwelle's prickliness toward the United States would likely be neutralized by the long-sought attention from Washington he would receive if he becomes foreign minister. Germany's foreign policy elite will continue to view him with skepticism."

Murphy, clearly unimpressed with Westerwelle, sums up his dispatch with a telling sentence: "He's no Genscher," a reference to the highly able German foreign minister under ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The ambassador repeated his negative assessment several times. In a brief written a few days before the election, Murphy calls Westerwelle an "enigma who has been unable to establish himself as a significant voice on foreign affairs." In a further dispatch from Sept. 2009, the ambassador writes: "Westerwelle becomes defensive very quickly and when challenged directly, especially by his counterpart political heavyweights, becomes aggressive and dismissive of other people's opinions."

Merkel's Superior Foreign Policy Expertise

Murphy writes that the Americans will be confronted with the question of how best to deal with someone who he describes as having an ambivalent relationship with the United States. He further states: "Westerwelle is a wild card; his exuberant personality does not lend itself to taking a back seat to Chancellor Merkel on any issue. If he becomes foreign minister, there is the possibility of higher profile discord between the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry." Even months after the election, the image the US had of Westerwelle had changed but little. Westerwelle's ministry, a dispatch from Feb. 5, 2010 makes clear, "still wonders (privately to us) where he gets his policy direction from."

The ambassador's dismissive assessment was reflected in the daily political activity between Berlin and Washington. The State Department treated the Chancellery as its preferred point of contact. In comparison to Westerwelle, Murphy writes, Merkel had "more government and foreign policy experience," and adds: "We should not underestimate her desire to carve out a political legacy for herself ... her dominance is likely to have a net benefit for US interests."

On key issues, US diplomats began turning to Christoph Heusgen, the chancellor's foreign policy advisor. From the US perspective, Heusgen became a kind of shadow foreign minister. At a meeting in Berlin in November 2009, a US Embassy employee asked Heusgen how the government intended to approach the coalition partner's demand that all tactical nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Germany. The FDP informant had told the embassy how important the issue was for Westerwelle. It was one of the few issues on which the new foreign minister was not only true to his principles, but also reflected the view of a large majority of the German public.

Speaking to the Americans, though, Heusgen distanced himself from the demand and claimed that Westerwelle had imposed the goal on Merkel's party during coalition negotiations. A US cable notes: "Heusgen said that from his perspective, it made no sense to unilaterally withdraw 'the 20' tactical nuclear weapons still in Germany while Russia maintains 'thousands' of them."

Europe's Waning Importance

The difficult relationship between the US government and several senior German officials put a strain on political relations that were already in a difficult phase. From the US perspective, the role played by countries like Germany since World War II has changed. Europe is no longer as important as it once was.

The US now sees China as the power most likely to challenge American dominance in the 21st century. There is speculation in Washington over whether a G-2 world order is realistic -- one in which the two superpowers set the course. The Europeans, including the Germans, play a secondary role in the new world order.

Magnifying the situation is the fact that US President Obama lacks an emotional bond to Europe. He spent his youth in Indonesia and in Hawaii -- he tends to look across the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. His relationships with European politicians are professionally cool.

That is also true of his bond with Angela Merkel. The chancellor had a good rapport with former President George W. Bush, even though they disagreed on many issues. Bush liked the enthusiasm with which Merkel, a former East German citizen, approached the concept of freedom. For the German chancellor, America was still the "land of unlimited opportunity." Merkel liked the fact that her charm worked on Bush. In return, she even endured his public neck massage.

American Insight into German Infighting

Merkel is more reserved toward his successor, Barack Obama. He is immune to her charm offensive and the antithesis to her approach to politics. Obama has demonstrated that politics can inspire people. Merkel, on the other hand, approaches politics with a scientist's precision. She likes to point out that Obama has announced several reforms, but has accomplished very little.

The US government senses this distance -- it has repeatedly been the topic of internal discussions. In preparation for Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Berlin in the spring of 2009, Ambassador Murphy wrote the following about Merkel: "She is still trying to get a sense of working with the new Washington Administration and seems uncertain at times."

Merkel was scheduled to meet with Obama on the sidelines of a NATO summit in the southwestern German resort town of Baden-Baden in April 2009. In preparation for the meeting, John Koenig, the former chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in Berlin, wrote a memo on Merkel for the new US president: "Merkel is methodical, rational, and pragmatic," the memo reads. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious but is risk averse and rarely creative," he continues, concluding that "she will remain a very circumspect ally until the election."

US diplomats note their view that the chancellor approaches international diplomacy with the aim of determining how she can profit from it domestically. She is "known for her reticence to engage in aggressive politics, preferring to stay in the background until the 'correlation of forces' is clear and then engaging to nudge the debate in her preferred direction." In the classified reports, the chancellor is referred to several times as Angela "Teflon" Merkel, apparently because so little sticks to her.

A Furious Chancellor

But, the dispatches note, Merkel can be very energetic once she has made up her mind. In November 2009, at the height of the struggle over the future of German automaker Opel, the chancellor flew to Washington, where she discovered that General Motors (GM) had decided, contrary to previous announcements, not to sell Opel to the Canadian auto parts maker Magna. Merkel was appalled, and thanks to the network of informants, the US Embassy quickly learned of her fury. According to embassy reports, "a high-level source indicated that Chancellor Merkel is furious over the GM move and refuses to talk to GM's leadership." A Merkel advisor told the ambassador that the chancellor was so angry that she even refused to take a telephone call from GM CEO Fritz Henderson.

In analyzing the course of Merkel's chancellorship, the Americans have divided it into three phases. At the beginning, after coming into power in 2005, Merkel was seen as a great chancellor whose calm demeanor made her popular among Germans. Her popularity was at "stratospheric levels." In April 2007, leading up to a visit to the United States, the diplomats write: "Angela Merkel arrives in Washington in an enviable position of political strength, both at home and in the EU. However, she is conscious that her strength derives largely from the weakness of her counterparts."

The second phase describes the disillusionment within her first governing coalition, a marriage of Merkel's conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats, known as the Grand Coalition. The chancellorship is no longer pleasant, the US envoys noted in a dispatch. "Merkel's conservatives and Steinmeier's Social Democrats resemble the proverbial couple that hated each other but stayed together for the sake of the children," then Ambassador William Timken Jr. wrote to his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Still, strife within the coalition was seen as unimportant as long as it didn't jeopardize trans-Atlantic relations.

The current concerns, in phase 3, are more significant. "One hundred days after Germany's black-yellow (eds. note: conservatives and FDP) coalition took office, a strong, unified government led by Chancellor Merkel has yet to materialize," the embassy wrote in a cable dated Feb. 3, 2010. "Chancellor Merkel may have ironically cast off the yoke of the Grand Coalition only now to be encumbered with a new FDP-CSU double yoke, restrained by an FDP bent on delivering on campaign promises and a CSU distracted over its rivalry with the FDP and internal problems."

The Afghanistan Debate

And then there is Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU). He is the opposite of Merkel, embodying hope for the Americans, a "foreign policy expert, a transatlanticist and a close and well-known friend to the United States."

The relationship between Guttenberg and US officials is close, and they meet regularly. The minister feels that he is among friends with the Americans, which encourages him to speak frankly. In December 2008, he complained, for example, that "Merkel was not being assertive enough on the economy."

He also denigrates fellow cabinet member Westerwelle, as the minutes of a discussion between Guttenberg and Murphy on Feb. 3, 2010 demonstrate. The meeting took place a few days after the international Afghanistan conference in London, where the number of German troops in Afghanistan was a topic of discussion. The German government had promised to send only 850 additional soldiers, but the US had sought a bigger commitment. Westerwelle, Guttenberg complained, had prevented a larger engagement. "In explaining the lower-than-expected planned increase in the number of German troops for Afghanistan, Guttenberg told the Ambassador that Westerwelle's opening position in the coalition negotiations on the new mandate had been 'not one additional soldier.' In that context, it had been difficult to get agreement on any increase at all."

After the meeting, Murphy sent a cable to Clinton, in which he writes that according to Guttenberg, "Foreign Minister Westerwelle -- not the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- had been the single biggest obstacle to the government seeking a bigger increase in German troops for Afghanistan."

But it wasn't just that Guttenberg was making snide remarks about Westerwelle. The FDP also had some disparaging things to say about Guttenberg. "While Guttenberg said he is avoiding public comment on whether the outcome of the coalition talks on the new mandate is a 'victory' for him or Westerwelle, an FDP spokesperson told (an embassy employee) separately that Westerwelle's hard line against additional troops had been motivated in part to 'teach Guttenberg a lesson,'" Murphy writes. "She claimed that Guttenberg had been too presumptuous last fall in making speeches in Canada and the US about how Germany would significantly increase its troop contribution to ISAF. He might have been able to get agreement on a higher ceiling had he engaged parliamentarians first and showed 'greater respect for the political process.'"

A Portrait of Germany's Political Elite

Mutual denigration appears to be widespread among German politicians. If one is to believe the written summaries of the conversations, German decision-makers spoke very openly with US diplomats and even seemed to enjoy the opportunity to attack each other without inhibition. In this sense, the cables also paint a portrait of the political elite of this country.

There is Andrea Nahles, who apparently had no compunctions about sharply criticizing her party's eventual candidate for the chancellorship ahead of last fall's general elections: "Deputy SPD Chair Andrea Nahles, the leading left-wing critic of Steinmeier's centrist approach, said that she was unhappy that 'the US knows more about Steinmeier than I do,' referring to Steinmeier's role as Chancellery Chief of Staff and Intelligence Coordinator under Gerhard Schroeder. Nahles suggested strongly that the left wing of the SPD could portray Steinmeier as too close to the US on intelligence-related issues ... thereby damaging his candidacy."

And then there is Rainer Brüderle (FDP), the current economics minister who, as a member of the opposition in 2009, commenting on the choice of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as economics minister, said that the CSU was apparently pleased to be able to summon up someone "who can read and write."

Complaints about the chancellor were also reported to the Americans. According to a November 2006 embassy analysis, leading CDU figures like Johannes von Thadden and members of parliament Ursula Heinen and Philipp Missfelder had told embassy officials about the "deep dissatisfaction" with Merkel and the government within the CDU.

America's Trojan Horse in Europe

An influential employee at CDU party headquarters also offered a negative assessment of the last CDU challenger to Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, Friedbert Pflüger. For his part, Pflüger figures repeatedly as a source for the Americans, who recognize how valuable he is. The words "please protect" are noted in parentheses after his name.

The reports and assessments were incorporated into the analyses that the US Embassy's political division prepared on German parties and politicians. They were often sharply critical. The US diplomats, it becomes clear, do not have a very high opinion of German politicians, particularly those at the state level.

For example, a cable describing an encounter with Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer in February 2010 sent by the American consulate in Munich notes that Seehofer "revealed only shallow foreign policy expertise" when he met with Murphy on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. According to the report, the governor wasn't even aware of how many US troops were stationed in Bavaria. "In general, Seehofer had little to say regarding foreign policy and seemed uninformed about basic things." According to the cable, Seehofer had seemed surprised when an official attending the meeting pointed out that 20,000 of the 40,000 US soldiers in Germany were stationed in Bavaria. In addition, the cable notes that "the drop of public support for the CSU in recent elections has further encouraged Seehofer's natural instincts to utter populist pronouncements."

At times, even Seehofer's fellow party members complain about the governor's escapades. After CSU head Seehofer had made critical remarks about the Afghanistan mission in December 2009, embassy employees reported that "a CSU contact called us that same morning from party headquarters to express his frustration over Seehofer who had 'once again not consulted anybody before giving his two cents.'"

A Good Friend to the US

The American diplomats were even more sharply critical of Günther Oettinger (CDU) when the then governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg took a new position as EU Energy Commissioner in Brussels. The purpose of the nomination was to "remove an unloved lame duck from an important CDU bastion," a dispatch notes. "Oettinger's increasing loss of party support in Baden-Württemberg compelled Merkel to push Oettinger out to protect her support base there." In addition, Merkel had "wanted to appoint a German Commissioner who would not outshine her." Oettinger, whom the embassy describes as having a "lackluster public speaking style," was not to be feared.

Such analyses were delivered to Washington day after day. The cables are the raw materials, the unprocessed documents, of American foreign policy. Their appeal lies in both their directness and their incomplete nature. They describe the building blocks of policy and, in some cases, when the home office sends its instructions to its diplomatic field offices, the methodology of power politics also becomes visible. During the Bush administration, this was especially apparent when it came to then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a senior member of Merkel's CDU. For Washington, Schäuble is the second shining light of German politics next to Guttenberg. "No German senior official pushes as hard, or argues so publicly, for closer bilateral cooperation on security issues as Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble," Ambassador William Timken wrote in 2008.

The Bush administration saw Schäuble as a sort of Trojan horse in Europe, a man who could help Washington achieve its goals. The US, for example, feels that the Europeans are not sufficiently cooperative when it comes to exchanging information on fighting terrorism. "Mission Germany has pushed ... information sharing with German officials for several months, thus far without success," reads a dispatch from July 2006. "But recent developments and future high-level contact may provide a way forward." The remarks relate to an approaching visit to the United States by Schäuble, which, as embassy officials write, will offer an opportunity "to influence the German position."

'Find a Legal Way to Do It'

The US sees Schäuble as potentially "willing and able to break logjams and find new ways to work more closely with the US." At times, this willingness can stretch the limits of the German constitutional state. In the event that the EU failed to agree on the sharing of data relating to airline passengers flying to the US, Schäuble had apparently instructed his staff "to find a way to bilaterally share airline Passenger Name Records (PNR) data with the US," according to one of the cables. "The German data privacy commissioner opposes the move and claims it cannot be done legally, but Schäuble told his ministry to find a legal way to do it."

Schäuble was experienced with questionable solutions. According to the US documents, in 2006, before the football World Cup in Germany, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) had scanned the FBI terrorism database for the names of 147,000 people accredited for the event: volunteers, journalists, suppliers and stewards. The cables describe how both governments circumvented the hurdles of the constitutional state to do so: "During the 2006 World Cup information sharing, the BKA was concerned that German courts might force them to reveal the source of possible US tearline background information provided subsequent to a hit. German courts, however, do not have the same jurisdiction over German security services such as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution or BfV -- the domestic security service. Therefore, during the World Cup, the two sides decided to share any tearline background information via the BfV." Unlike the police, the BfV, as an intelligence service, can cite the need to protect its sources.

The US government registered Schäuble's shift from the post of interior minister to that of finance minister with concern. Thomas de Maizière (CDU), the new interior minister, is more moderate, which the Americans did not fail to notice. He long sought to avoid publicly invoking grim scenarios, as Schäuble had done. For de Maizière, security is only one of several aspects of his policy.

From the US perspective, de Maizière's appointment meant that things were now moving backward instead of forward. In almost every description of the new interior minister, they criticize him for supposedly having less expertise and showing less enthusiasm than Schäuble when it comes to fighting terror. Ambassador Murphy characterizes de Maizière's remarks to employees on his first day in office, in which he distanced himself sharply from Schäuble's positions, as "peculiar." The cable is titled: "Germany's new interior minister faces steep learning curve."

The US 'Campaign' on SWIFT

Despite Murphy's doubts, the negotiations surrounding the SWIFT agreement showed that de Maizière was indeed on the side of the Americans. The negotiations are a prime example of the approach taken by a superpower determined to promote its interests.

The financial organization known as "SWIFT" processes about 15 million international money transfers daily -- monitored by the US. In 2008, SWIFT announced its intention to move a computing center from the United States to Europe, so as to prevent US authorities from having direct access to the data. The US government, fearing that the move would deprive it of an important counter-terrorism tool, called for an agreement with Europe to guarantee American access to the sensitive data.

The situation came to a head in November 2009. A vote on the new agreement was pending in Brussels, and the US government spared no effort to convince German and European politicians to sign the agreement.

According to one of the dispatches, there were "weeks of engagement in Berlin, Brussels and Washington as well as high-level interventions from Secretary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Geithner, Attorney General Holder, National Security Advisor Gen. Jones and Ambassador Murphy." Murphy himself called it a "campaign." It also included telephone conversations between Secretary of State Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Attorney General Eric Holder and their German counterparts. James Jones, Obama's national security advisor, also put in a call to the German Chancellery. Murphy wrote two letters to each German cabinet minister involved in the matter.

The agreement was extremely controversial within the coalition government. The FDP wanted to defend banking secrecy and felt that the process of systematically combing through all transactions was excessive. It was opposed to such an agreement and received assurances to this effect in its coalition agreement with the CDU.

Standard Diplomatic Procedure?

But American pressure had its desired effect. By abstaining from voting in Brussels, de Maizière ensured that the new agreement could move forward. Murphy proudly notes that de Maizière had even done so in the knowledge that his decision would cause significant problems in Merkel's new coalition. However, the ambassador warns, the German minister would not appreciate a repetition of "our all-out lobbying effort" in the next phase of the SWIFT agreement. "De Maiziere surely finds this whole experience regrettable as it put him in exactly the position he did not want to be in: seemingly siding with the US over German interests."

The next round was soon underway. In February 2010, the more critical European Parliament reached its decision on SWIFT. Ahead of the vote, Ambassador Murphy sent an urgent "action request" to Washington. The embassy "strongly recommended" that Washington send experts to discuss the issue with the German government. Once again, it was the FDP that was causing trouble. "Key government figures have no practical experience in dealing with security problems in the Internet age," Murphy writes.

To address his concerns, Murphy requested a face-to-face meeting with Westerwelle. The foreign minister replied that he could not influence the voting behavior of the German members of the European Parliament, a response the ambassador characterized as "a bit disingenuous." At least Murphy had the support of the chancellor.

Despite that support, the agreement failed in Strasbourg. According to a subsequent cable, then Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust told US diplomats that Merkel had been "very, very angry" about it, "angrier than he had ever seen her." Merkel, von Beust said, had "personally lobbied" conservative members of the European Parliament, but they still voted against the measure.

'Please Protect'

Now that his reports have been made public, Murphy will have a lot of explaining to do. Even though the US government is one of Germany's closest allies, the German government will now have to decide how much latitude it should be giving a good friend. There is a fine line between justifiable diplomatic interest and the management of sources for intelligence purposes. Had Russian or Chinese diplomats approached employees of German political parties, particularly those in government, it would have been a case for counter-espionage authorities. In 1997, when an employee of the US Embassy was caught trying to convince a senior official at the German Economics Ministry to hand over copies of internal documents, a diplomatic conflict ensued. The Chancellery lodged a complaint, and the US official, who was part of the CIA, had to leave Germany.

The difference between this case and that of the FDP note taker who passed on internal documents from the coalition negotiations to the US Embassy is marginal. The embassy is aware of this, or else it wouldn't distinguish between open diplomatic contacts and secret sources. Even the language in the cables points to the subtle difference between the two. Particularly valuable informants are treated as anonymous sources only, or their names are followed by the words "please protect." Murphy says it is merely standard diplomatic procedure as is normal "the world over."

The envoys of many countries, including German diplomats, send similar reports home. But it is one of the unwritten rules of the profession that none of this information can be made public. The negative view the US holds of Westerwelle may be a problem for political relations between the two countries -- but its disclosure is even worse. It turns a limited internal problem into an incalculable public one.

An English-Speaking Foreign Minister

The fact that the State Department cables were leaked and published by WikiLeaks for everyone to see will have its own political impact. Westerwelle is portrayed as someone who the United States sees as unsuitable, arrogant and suspicious. This image will accompany him at future state receptions abroad. America's secret reports could undermine his already diminished authority on the international stage. It likely won't help much that opinions of Westerwelle have softened somewhat since he came into office.

After a meeting on Feb. 5, Murphy notes that the German foreign minister "was in a buoyant mood and more confident on his issues," despite the substantial problems within the coalition.

And at least the cables set the record straight on one issue. Westerwelle was widely ridiculed following his first press conference as foreign minister when he refused to answer a BBC reporter's question in English. Murphy, though, makes a point of praising the foreign minister. Westerwelle, he wrote, "spoke with ease in English."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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