Codependent Merkel's Pragmatic Approach to the NSA Scandal

Chancellor Merkel might be furious about the NSA's unscrupulous surveillance activities, but reluctance to anger her partners in Washington prevents her from imposing sanctions. Trade issues aside, Germany itself depends heavily on intelligence gathered by the US agency. By SPIEGEL Staff


The surroundings alone clearly indicated that this was no normal discussion. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice led her German guests to the "Situation Room," the intelligence nerve center in the basement of the White House. This is where the commander-in-chief orders drone attacks and issues commands to deploy troops. It was in the Situation Room, for instance, that US President Barack Obama watched US special forces hunt down Osama bin Laden two and a half years ago.

Something has shifted in the relations between Berlin and Washington -- otherwise Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's foreign policy adviser, would not have met with top US officials in a secure conference room last Wednesday. Nothing has strained ties with the US over the past few years more than the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.

Merkel doesn't know what should upset her more: the chutzpah of a so-called friend who listens to her phone calls, or the Americans' inability to keep it a secret. Now Merkel has been exposed as a chancellor who was deceived by an unscrupulous intelligence agency. Just last summer, she believed the assurances made by the NSA that it was complying with all laws and regulations on German soil -- at least that's what she said publicly. Now her staff are wondering what will come next. Will the world soon be able to read transcripts of her mobile phone conversations? It would be a political nightmare.

The chancellor has every reason to be angry -- but it's difficult to find the appropriate response. The German government has been considering a wide range of possible sanctions against the US. Should Germany take counterintelligence measures against the Americans -- in addition to its existing operations targeting countries like China and Russia? Should Berlin put the brakes on negotiations for a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement?

A Boomerang Effect

But Germany and the US are so closely linked that every blow dealt to the other side would have a boomerang effect. Shelving the free trade agreement, for example, would primarily impact the export-dependent German economy. The Munich-based Ifo economic think tank has calculated that dropping barriers to trade could create 160,000 jobs in Germany.

Merkel faces a dilemma. She doesn't want to go down in history as a chancellor who allowed herself to be pushed around by her American big brother. On the other hand, she doesn't want to rock the boat too much. Her first move following the outrage over her tapped cellphone was to send a delegation of top-ranking German officials to Washington, including foreign policy adviser Heusgen and Günter Heiss, the foreign intelligence coordinator at the Chancellery.

After Rice had welcomed the guests to the Situation Room, Heusgen presented Germany's wish list. The top item was a so-called no-spy agreement -- an accord in which both sides promise not to spy on each other.

The first element of a pact like this involves renouncing all industrial espionage. This is seen as non-contentious, since neither side currently runs such operations. The Americans quickly signaled their agreement.

Then the Germans addressed their core demand: no technical espionage on German soil. The wording here already includes a concession to the Americans, because information flows globally in the Internet age. Furthermore, this choice of words does not clearly regulate the activities of the US embassy in Berlin.

Another issue remains open: a ban on the surveillance of both heads of state. At first glance, this would appear to be a simple matter. After all, the White House has already given assurances that Merkel will not be spied on in the future. But providing Germany with written assurances could set a precedent that other countries might later invoke -- at least that's what the Americans are afraid could happen.

The Price of Cooperation

It also remains unclear what form such a no-spy agreement would take. When German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), flew to Washington last summer, he indicated that he wanted to initiate an accord between the intelligence services. Now, it looks like a treaty will be signed by the governments in Washington and Berlin -- and jointly drafted by the Chancellery and the White House. A second meeting between the two sides is under consideration. The US side would like to see a "more intensive cooperation," Rice said toward the end of the two-hour discussion.

That might sound promising -- but the statement also contains a threat. More cooperation can only be of limited interest to the Germans. The Americans' only real friends are the members of the coalition of Anglophone countries known as the "Five Eyes," which consists of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There is an informal agreement among their intelligence agencies not to spy on each other. At the same time, they closely cooperate with each other, and even exchange highly sensitive information. Would that be a model to prevent future espionage attacks?

In any case, the price would be high. The Five Eyes collaborate on spying operations throughout Europe, drone attacks and even the rendition of suspected terrorists. These are dirty operations that would immediately be reviewed by an investigative committee if they were conducted by a German intelligence agency. Not surprisingly, the German government has no inclination to become a member of this dubious club.

Still, Germany's intelligence services want to continue to benefit from the information provided by the Americans. Indeed, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, is seeking to conclude a second agreement covering its future collaboration with the NSA. This week, Gerhard Schindler and Hans-Georg Maassen -- the heads of the BND and Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV) -- plan to travel to the US capital.

Remorse and Defiance

The US is vacillating between remorse and defiance in reaction to the cellphone scandal. So far the NSA's spying activities abroad have attracted little attention in the US media. But that's changing. A number of American politicians are showing signs of regret. US Secretary of State John Kerry read the riot act to the NSA last week. "The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," he said, adding that "in some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, says that she "totally rejects" the surveillance of friendly heads of state. Feinstein, 80, is widely revered as an institution -- and her word carries weight in Washington. She says she doesn't believe that Obama knew about the spying on Merkel.

Most observers in Washington agree that the operation against Merkel could not have been launched in 2002 without the approval of then-President George W. Bush. The surveillance campaign began shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the US was preparing to go to war against Iraq. There are many indications that a spying campaign began back then -- a campaign that was not only directed against Merkel, but also against the leaders of other allied countries. To this day, US intelligence agencies feel this was justified.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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harry.haddad 11/04/2013
1. The NSA has overstepped some boundaries, but largely so far it has been a practical necessity for Germany
The NSA has helped to prevent many terrorist attacks in Germany from occurring, and that I support. What I do not support is the unnecessary prodding into of such aspects such as Angela Merkel's cellphone.
edwards.mikej 11/05/2013
2. industrial espionage
"The first element of a pact like this involves renouncing all industrial espionage. This is seen as non-contentious, since neither side currently runs such operations." Perhaps you missed the reports of the NSA spying on Petrobras and the Ministry of Mines as well - of course that's different right?
American_in_Munich 11/05/2013
3. Wrong Reasons
Germany should not be granting asylum to Snowden in order to teach the USA a lesson, but because he has dramatically shown all of us how out of balance our societies have become: willing to sacrifice ourselves to Big Brother states in order to save a handful of lives per year.
alpha 10 11/05/2013
4. further industrial espionage
the US has already shown it conducts industrial espionage, from the targeting Enercon mid-90's to revelations over the past weeks. Are German politicians ignoring that, when a German company has already lost patents over such spying?
regierungs4tel 11/05/2013
5. Foreign SIGINT activities out of Berlin Embassies
It is rather unlikely that Merkels Intelligence Services did not explicititly consent in signal intelligence activities out of diplomatic premises in Berlin. See the satellite perspective on the British Mission at Berlin:ße 71, 10117 Berlin&form=LMLTSN&cp=52.51566162514916~13.380592854080874&lvl=19.456198038832422&sty=b&encType=1#Y3A9c3JrYmdiajNmamIwJmx2bD0xOS40NiZkaXI9MzQwLjQ1JnN0eT1iJnNzPXlwLldpbGhlbG1zdHJhJTI1QzMlMjU5RmUlMjUyMDcxJTI1MkMlMjUyMDEwMTE3JTI1MjBCZXJsaW5+cGcuMX5yYWQuODA=
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