German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to be pretty clear with US President Barack Obama the next time she has him on the line. At least that's a reasonable assumption, based on the anger she has expressed about American spying operations in the European Union and Germany.
"I demand an explanation, Barack," the chancellor might say. After all, the president eloquently defended the Prism program on his recent visit to Berlin, but the Americans' bugging, electronic eavesdropping and excessive data collection from allied European countries, which came to light this weekend, was not part of the conversation. Merkel is said to be quite rankled.
But others say that the chancellor will probably be friendly to Obama during their next talk, and not because this is what diplomatic conventions call for, even amid tensions. No, it's because there is some question as to whether Berlin's dismay about the espionage by the National Security Agency (NSA) is really as great as it claims. Could some of the indignation be feigned? Did the revelations really shock the chancellor? And if it did come as a surprise, has German counterintelligence failed miserably?
The opposition doesn't believe that Merkel was unaware of the situation. In an editorial for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this week, Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), openly aired the suspicion that Merkel was familiar with at least some of the spying activity. The government has vehemently rejected this accusation as crude campaign bluster. This isn't totally unjust -- the opposition has seized on the opportunity to portray Merkel as a traitor to citizens' freedoms, a strategy that could gain support among a population particularly sensitive to data protection issues.
Who Informs Who?
The election campaign aside, there are good reasons to ask critical questions of not just the Americans, but the German government too. Intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom says that Gabriel's suspicion is "at least tendentially" correct. "According to my estimation, the authorities knew about this," he told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
That's because the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), which is responsible for protecting government networks, compiles threat analyses for the Interior Ministry. And adversaries include "not only China or Russia, but also the Anglo-Saxon services," Schmidt-Eenboom said. Additionally, Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) is familiar with the capacities of allied intelligence agencies, he added. In turn, the BND briefs the Chancellery, or more precisely its chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, who is responsible for coordinating the intelligence agencies. He then shares this information with the chancellor when he sees fit.
On Wednesday, Pofalla is to sit before the Parliamentary Control Committee of the Bundestag for a question and answer session. The heads of the three German intelligence agencies -- responsible for foreign, domestic and military intelligence -- were also invited to the special session. The questions there will probably follow the same line of logic: How much did the German agencies know about the activities of their American counterparts? How much would they like to know? And could it be that German counterintelligence is not functioning? The SPD, however, cannot hide behind Merkel's conservatives. After all, it was current opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier who occupied Pofalla's post from 1999 to 2005, in the delicate time after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when US intelligence agencies were certainly not idle.
One thing is obvious: No one believed that the NSA was steering clear of Germany. When it comes to the war on terror, Germany has frequently benefited from the work of American spies. The information that led to the 2007 capture of the so-called "Sauerland cell" came from the NSA and CIA, which had intercepted phone calls and emails. Even if the partner services don't normally get to see the raw data, the Germans should have been able to figure out that the Americans could only collect this information through very comprehensive surveillance.
The Wednesday Phone Call
Why ask questions if the cooperation is working? Merkel knows that the US is extremely sensitive when it comes to national security. But she must also know, at least since the Wikileaks revelations three years ago, that the Americans are not here just to search for terrorists. It was then brought to light that the US Embassy was relying on insiders for information about the goverment coalition negotiations in 2009. This wasn't espionage, but it showed that Washington is interested in information from Europe's innermost circles of power.
But the chancellor may have been alarmed to find out that such information can also be obtained through targeted wiretapping, as documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden now reveal in the case of several EU delegations. This also explains why keeping quiet about the NSA scandal is not an option for her, especially given the upcoming election in September.
On Wednesday, Merkel may have the opportunity, as announced, to speak to Obama personally by phone about the espionage allegations. That's when the US president returns from his seven-day Africa trip. There's no doubt that Obama will express polite understanding for the worries of the Germans. But it's highly doubtful that any fundamental changes will be made regarding American intelligence practices.
The US president turned the tables once more on Monday in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: "In European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, then at least my talking points," said Obama, in reference to the current activities of other countries' intelligence agencies.
In other words, what's all the fuss?