A 'Teflon' Chancellor and 'Wildcard' Foreign Minister How America Views the Germans

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.

By , John Goetz, , and

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.


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.

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Photo Gallery: How America Sees the Germans

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?

An Interactive Atlas of the Diplomatic Cables

A time lapse of 251,287 documents: The world map shows where the majority of the cables originated from, and where they had the highest level of classification. View the atlas ...

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.

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