However, a reading of the comments that appeared in the Financial Times tends to reinforce in my mind the discomfort all of us should feel about the US Government agency known as NSA or the National Security Agency and others whose responsibility it is to spy, as they say in the movies.
At some point someone has to take responsibility for this crap, put it in context, and then put people in charge that have a fundamental understanding that in this age of instant news and technology, ANYTHING and EVERYTHING you do might have public consequences.
Some of it is probably justified, but to simply say OK to all of it means we are already far down that ubiquitous slippery slope. Time for some new rules.
By Constanze Stelzenmüller / July 9, 2014
The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” This was Oscar Wilde on fox hunting. Spying is hunting, of sorts. But in the latest instalment of the saga of US spying on the Germans, it is beginning to look more like the irresponsible in pursuit of the incompetent.
First, the prey. A low-level registry clerk at the Bavarian headquarters of the BND, the German federal intelligence service, offers his services to the Americans by mail. He sells them more than 200 documents over several years for a five-figure sum. His handlers are especially interested in the parliamentary committee investigating the US National Security Agency’s efforts to spy on Germany; according to Der Spiegel, a news magazine, they tell him to send everything he can find on the committee.
Then our man in Pullach sends another email, this time to the Russians. Would they be interested in his wares as well? To prove that he is not bogus, he attaches a handful of secret papers.
How could this have happened in a section of the federal intelligence service that has access to information about the Bundestag’s most sensitive committee? Susceptibility to greed or treason may be difficult to test for. But surely this man was either dim, lacking a survival instinct, or both. Who vetted him? Who hired him? Who watched him? Germany can guard the space between its goalposts as though it housed a nuclear bomb. Apparently, however, it cannot guard a parliamentary committee on intelligence.
Next: the pursuers. This was a tempting offer. But did no one in the US embassy say: “Hold it one second, guys. Remember how upset Angela Merkel was when we tapped her cellphone? What if this comes out, and the ambassador has to dine alone with his family for the rest of his tenure?” They might have reflected that, in his speech in Berlin in June last year, President Barack Obama sort of said the US would not resort to such tactics again.
They might have considered that Edward Snowden’s disclosures of NSA documents have made him a folk hero for many Germans. They might have done well to weigh the benefits of espionage against the potential costs. They could even have contemplated telling the German authorities that they had a little problem, in a bid to repair trust.
But evidently they thought none of these things. John Emerson, the US ambassador, was duly summoned to the foreign ministry in Berlin. And not on just any day; he was invited to a “conversation” on July 4, when the American community throws a party for Berliners, who munch on hot dogs while their children bury their noses in ice-cream cones, and gratefully remember the “Luftbrücke”, when the US Air Force flew in food and medicine to sustain the city during the Russian blockade of 1948-49. German displeasure might have been inferred.
All that was missing was news that Germany learnt of the leak through a friendly tipoff from Russian intelligence. This news reached the chancellor during a trip to Beijing (her seventh). Standing next to Premier Li Keqiang, she acknowledged grimly that this incident was “very serious”. Her host’s response was to say that Germany and China are “both victims of hacking”.
The large business contingent in Ms Merkel’s delegation will have taken note. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, Hans Georg Maassen, had despatched them with a public warning that the country’s small and medium-sized Mittelstand firms are the “easy prey” of systematic cyberespionage by Chinese intelligence, which he called an “overpowering foe”. All that was missing was news that German authorities learnt of the leak through a friendly tipoff from Russian intelligence.
Cue wild harrumphing in Berlin, from justice minister Heiko Maas mulling criminal action, via interior minister Thomas de Maizière threatening “360-degree” counter-espionage, to mutterings about expelling US diplomats. The Americans, meanwhile, are issuing limp promises to “work with” the Germans.
Both reactions are off the mark. But they ought to serve as a warning. Just a year after the first revelations about NSA spying in Germany, resentment still runs high in Berlin; a rare case in which elites are in sync with the public mood. And Washington’s feeble response is not so much a sign of guilt – though it is probably that, too – as of helplessness in the face of a secret state that appears to have outgrown political judgment or control.
Yesterday, German media were reporting that a new espionage case was being investigated – this time in the defence ministry. Mr Emerson promptly made another visit to the foreign ministry.
There is no time to lose. A nasty US-German spat on Nato’s role in the Ukraine crisis is brewing. Negotiations on a US-European free- trade agreement face bitter public resistance. Add a breakdown of trust over espionage and you could have a transatlantic trifecta of disaster by the autumn.
The writer is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund