“Treason,” reads the latest cover of Germany’s influential weekly Der Spiegel. Yet, though the latest political scandal involving the U.S. National Security Agency’s European spying operations is serious enough to threaten the career of German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere and undermine the authority of Chancellor Angela Merkel, it’s not really about a betrayal of German interests but about the lasting legacy of the Cold War and outsized U.S. power in the Western world.
The NSA’s extensive spying on Europeans, including political leaders, has been known about since Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations. The current scandal concerns how much help the U.S. agency got from the German intelligence service, BND, and an alleged cover-up of that assistance.
According to reports in well-informed German media, including Der Spiegel and the tabloid Bild, the NSA used the BND’s listening post in the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling to spy on the French presidential palace and Foreign Ministry, as well as the European Commission in Brussels and companies such as aerospace giant EADS (now known as Airbus).
Also, the BND reportedly monitored the communications of thousands of German citizens and entities at the NSA’s request, violating a law that bans it from spying on Germans. The BND informed De Maiziere, who was Merkel’s chief of staff between 2005 and 2009, about the activities, and he apparently did nothing to stop them.
Still, as recently as last month, the German government told parliament that it had no information about the NSA gathering intelligence on European companies. That lie is particularly dangerous to De Maiziere, but Merkel is also implicated. According to Ralf Stegner, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, the coalition partner of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, “it no longer works for the chancellor to keep the knowledge to herself and say, ‘I have nothing to do with this’.”
Merkel’s response on Monday was, on the surface, characteristically bland. Although she acknowledged that “friends mustn’t spy on one another,” she also repeated the standard defense that the spying was meant to counteract terrorism. “The government will do everything to guarantee the capability of the intelligence services,” Merkel said. “Considering terrorist threats, that capability can only happen in cooperation with other agencies. That very much includes the NSA, among others.”
That’s a very revealing answer. Germany may be new center of power in the European Union and a resurgent global force, but when it comes to defense and intelligence, it is still dependent on the World War II victors, the U.S. and the U.K., which had West Germany under tight control during the Cold War.
Anyone who has been to Teufelsberg, the Berlin hill built from wartime rubble that housed an allied listening station until 1991, will recognize the huge golf ball-like radomes of Bad Aibling Station on a Google Maps satellite image:
Both now-abandoned Teufelsberg, where graffiti artists play and where you can get inside the tatty radomes for seven euros (the radar systems they housed are gone), and Bad Aibling were part of the NSA’s Echelon global spying network. The U.S. agency handed over the Bavarian station, the biggest outside the U.S. and the U.K., to the BND in 2004. The domes are no longer in use except for an annual house-music festival named after Echelon, but apparently the NSA handover came with strings attached — the U.S. said goodbye, but never really left.
One of the BND operations the intelligence service is now accused of covering up, codenamed Monkeyshoulder, involved not just the NSA but its U.K. counterpart, GCHQ. Germany needed outside technology to access and process data from Deutsche Telekom, and agreed to pass on some of its findings in return.
Germany may be wealthy and technologically advanced, but in defense and intelligence it fell behind the U.S. and the U.K. as its struggles to overcome its Nazi past fostered a pacifist, compromise-based culture. Germany spends just 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, far short of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 2 percent target, and it probably couldn’t defend itself against a full-force onslaught without U.S. help. In the “war on terrorism” too, its capabilities are relatively modest, and it relies on the Americans to take the lead in determining the targets. If the NSA said it needed to know whether EADS is properly observing sanctions against rogue Middle Eastern states, who was Merkel to object?
Merkel and her government are now reminded of the mass surveillance run by the Nazis and the East German secret police, Stasi (Die Linke, the successor party to the East German communists, is, perversely, particularly vocal about the spying scandal). Yet NSA’s free rein in Germany harks back to a different tradition that few West Germans minded at the time: That of post-war allied supervision and the containment of Soviet power.
For Germany to bury that tradition now, it would need to be sure it can stand on its own against the new potential threats, be they terrorism or Russia’s new assertiveness. France, for its part, has already hastened to say “mutual confidence” has been re-established with Germany despite the Bad Aibling episode. And while Merkel can cite the limitations of budgets and technology to justify the government’s NSA collaboration to her coalition partners, the German public may prove harder to persuade.