Why the United States Spies on Germany
Policy + Politics

Why the United States Spies on Germany


Days after the CIA station chief was expelled from Berlin, the United States hit back against accusations that two German officials were spying for the United States.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest did not confirm or deny reports about American espionage revealed this week by German media. However, he did hit back at the public nature of the expulsion of the top American spy in Berlin.

Related: Why Europe Won't Punish the U.S. over NSA Scandal

“Allies with sophisticated intelligence agencies like the United States and Germany understand with some degree of detail exactly what those intelligence relationships and activities entail," Earnest said late last week. "Any differences that we have are most effectively resolved through established private channels, not through the media."

Meanwhile, in Berlin, German officials started to back off angry statements made earlier in the week when the spying revelations emerged. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is set to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry this weekend, said that both sides needed to “reinvigorate our friendship on a frank basis.” Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert also softened the tone of German rhetoric.

“German-U.S. friendship is much broader and deeper than the narrow area of cooperation of our intelligence services,” Seibert said, adding that the EU-US trade agreement currently being negotiated is still a priority for Berlin.

“It remains a project that is very important to the federal government," he said.

The latest spying revelations, combined with revelations last year that the NSA was targeting Merkel’s cell phone, have sunk German-US relations to the lowest point in a decade. The German public’s anger over American spying has reached a fever pitch; if it weren’t for the media distraction caused by German participation in the World Cup final later today, it would be even worse.

Related: For Merkel, the NSA Spying is Really Personal

Allies on a Different Page
Lost in the controversy over American espionage on German targets is whether the spying is justified. Germany is an ally, but on a number of key issues, Germany’s foreign policy often puts it at odds with the United States.

For instance, Germany and Russia enjoy a cozy relationship, both politically and economically. Merkel is generally considered the world leader closest to Vladimir Putin, a man determined to make Russia a rival to the United States, and often serves as a go-between for Western leaders.

The economic relationship runs deeper. Germany has attempted and failed to diversify the Russian economy by getting Moscow into the auto business. Some 300,000 German jobs are dependent on economic ties with Russia, and some $105 billion flows between the countries each year.

Yet the most important economic relationship between Moscow and Berlin is gas. Right now, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was the champion of the Nord Stream pipeline, which bypasses Eastern Europe through the Baltic Sea and will deliver gas directly from Russia to Germany (Schröder is currently making his fortune as the current chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG). Schröder also backed Putin when he annexed Crimea.

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Schröder was also a vocal critic of the invasion of Iraq. He openly questioned Washington on the international stage, and encouraged protest from the German public.

It’s not just former German politicians who have publicly split with Washington. In 2011, Merkel abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote calling for military action to stop Muammar Qaddafi. This decision drew widespread condemnation from the international community.

But for those who follow German politics, it’s hardly a surprise. German politics are governed by pragmatism, not moralism. In addition, the majority of the German public is against getting involved in international crises.

This was evident during the Ukraine crisis. While the majority of American allies called for sanctions against Putin and his inner circle, Germany balked. Merkel could have applied economic pressure that ended the standoff in its early days. Instead, she chose to wait.

Spies Like Us
Germany also has an active foreign intelligence collection service. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) actively collects intelligence from around the world, including German allies.

According to the National Security Council's Operations Security Intelligence Threat Handbook, the BND has a program called Project RAHAB, which actively collects signal intelligence.

“The German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) is alleged to have created a classified computer intelligence facility outside Frankfurt designed to permit intelligence officers to enter data networks and databases from countries around the world,” NSA found. “This program, code named Project RAHAB, is alleged to have accessed computers in Russia, the United States, Japan, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.”

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