BERLIN — News Wednesday that Germany is investigating new allegations that the United States bought secrets from a German official — the second such probe to become public in a week — delivered another blow to U.S.-German relations over what is now a year-old scandal of American spying on an ally.
“The American secret services are completely out of control,” said Hans-Christian Stroebele, the most senior member of Germany’s parliamentary committee investigating the National Security Agency’s activities in Germany. “They seem to think they are allowed to do everything, even in Germany.”
The most recent allegations revolve around NSA efforts to determine what Stroebele’s committee has learned. Last week, German authorities reportedly arrested a member of Germany’s foreign intelligence service for allegedly passing documents to the United States about Stroebele’s committee. Wednesday, the focus of the new investigation was a German military official.
Stroebele said the new spying efforts — a year after it was revealed that the United States had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and that the NSA was sweeping up millions of emails — would prove costly to what had been a strong relationship between the nations.
“Mistrust should be the order of the day,” he told McClatchy in a phone interview. “We have to be far more cautious than we used to be. I personally had always assumed that they do all kinds of things all over the world, but that they do them in Germany goes beyond what I imagined.”
By now, though, most Germans thinking about American activities on German soil imagine the worst. It’s been just more than a year since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked documents indicating the United States was routinely sweeping up and storing the electronic communications of millions of Germans.
It’s been nine months since Germans learned that among the cellphones being tapped was Merkel’s beloved “handy,” or cellphone. Only a month ago, a German prosecutor announced an official criminal investigation into the NSA’s spying on Germans in Germany.
And now, in the space of five days, investigations launched into whether the United States bought secrets from two German government insiders.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said it’s clear that under American law, the NSA has the legal right to spy on anything to do with U.S. foreign policy. But if it did, she said, it’s disturbing.
“It’s a sign of a ‘collect it all’ mindset that’s across the board, and that doesn’t take into consideration the damage that can be done to international relations,” she said, noting that while it might be legal under U.S. law it certainly is not under German law.
Patrick Keller, the coordinator for foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a Berlin think tank, said Wednesday that it’s difficult to see exactly why an American spy agency would devote so much time to spying on an ally.
“A main reason for the German irritation and disappointment in this matter is exactly that we cannot understand the U.S. motivation,” he wrote in an email response to questions. “My personal take is that all this intelligence work (in terms of data collection) has become detached from political control and political sensibilities. It has become an end in itself and as such, it harms U.S. interests rather than protects them.”
After all, experts say it’s unlikely the United States gained much from the reported activities. Germany has an active and free press. The NSA paid for secret documents from a parliamentary NSA committee known for leaking its secrets. Beyond that, German intelligence is known for sharing information with U.S. intelligence agencies, such as the Syrian phone calls the Germans intercepted last year when news broke of a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
And, of course, Germany is a member of NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance. The U.S. and German militaries have worked together for decades, most recently in Afghanistan.
Stroebele noted that Germany willingly hosts American military and intelligence facilities, including some facilities that Germany partly funds. There has never been a lack of a willingness to cooperate.
“To abuse your hosts in this way is something the federal government cannot tolerate,” he said. “The more that is uncovered, the more we get the impression that there is an entire swamp still to uncover.”
Stroebele’s committee will meet in an emergency session Thursday to discuss the proper reaction to the latest news.
Joerg Wolf, an editor-in-chief at the Atlantische Initiative, a Berlin foreign policy think tank, says it’s important to remember that the United States has had reasons to gather intelligence in Germany. The 9/11 culprits lived and planned in Hamburg, and Germany didn’t know. Germans also do quite a bit of business with Iran and Russia, two U.S. nemeses.
Buying secrets about Stroebele’s committee might simply have been too easy to resist. According to German news accounts, the seller of the secrets offered the documents to the United States in an email.
Still, few Germans think those reasons are sufficient for what they see as a betrayal of a friendship going back more than a half-century.
“The actual humiliation is that the Americans obviously don’t care what we think,” Der Spiegel commentator Jan Fleischhauer wrote.
And Wolf said that while few expect immediate damage to German-U.S. relations, the danger will linger.
“The U.S. government has made the correct assessment that Germany is dependent on the U.S. for defense, intelligence and more and wants to avoid conflicts,” he wrote in an email response to questions. “They do not have to worry about a political price. The U.S. has made the right cost-benefit analysis for the short term. The long-term damage, however, is significant: A lot of political trust has been lost.”
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the goodwill Germans have felt in recent decades toward the United States is starting to crumble.
A poll conducted in June for Der Spiegel showed that almost six in 10 responded that Germany should become more independent from the United States in its foreign policy, and 69 percent said that their trust in America had diminished.
“Anti-Americanism is not limited to the left or the extreme right anymore, but has spread to the political center,” Wolf said.
Wolf said one question that nags is what the NSA thought it would learn by finding moles, tapping cellphones and scouring German emails in what is one of the most open of societies?
“I don’t think the U.S. gained that much valuable information from the (German foreign intelligence) guy or by bugging Merkel’s cell and all the other NSA activities,” Wolf wrote. “The U.S. would gain much more if they would get a mole into the German national soccer team.”