Spies, Lies and Politics in Berlin

05/27/2015 04:02 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016
CHRISTOF STACHE via Getty Images


BERLIN -- What to do with a party that is anti-American, sympathizes with Vladimir Putin's Russia, wants Germany out of NATO -- and whose present members started their careers in the ruling party of communist East Germany? The German answer: Give it leadership of the Parliamentary Control Committee, which oversees the work of the secret services.

While the Bundestag is wrestling with the implications of the most recent spy scandal, the ex-Communist Left Party (Die Linke) has access to the secrets of Germany's three intelligence agencies: the domestic intelligence service (Verfassungsschutz), whose spying on Germans until recently focused also on Left Party parliamentarians; the military counterintelligence service (MAD); and the foreign intelligence agency (BND).

Now the Left Party's André Hahn, chair of the PCC, has been indirectly accused of leaking secret documents to the media. In return, he has hinted that the documents were leaked directly by the agencies themselves. Welcome to a country where questions of national security are routinely used as ammunition in political squabbles. Welcome to a political class that still cannot understand why American and British intelligence services might deem it necessary to spy on them now and again, if only to find out who is telling what to whom.

Scandalous Leaks vs. Scandalous Revelations

The most disturbing aspect is: the Germans consider NSA spying or the cooperation between it and the BND scandalous, but not the fact that confidential information has been leaked. Nor did anyone cry foul when Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in fact, used leaked intelligence material to lay a trap for Chancellor Angela Merkel: It appears that back in 2006, America's National Security Agency asked the BND to check out two European companies, EADS (now Airbus) and its subsidiary Eurocopter.

Nobody knows what the NSA was looking for -- possibly attempts to subvert the sanctions against Iran. But Gabriel -- who is also economics minister -- lost no time in describing this as "industrial espionage." He went on went on to say that he had asked her twice if she had evidence of economic espionage, and she said no.

This seems unlikely. German companies have a sorry record of dealings with unsavory regimes, from the mullahs' Tehran to Saddam Hussein's Baghdad to Putin's Moscow. If any more companies turn up (and, given the porous nature of the spy agencies, that could happen at any time), Merkel will stand accused of lying.

It was, of course, no accident that Gabriel, a member of the SPD, chose to unleash his revelations a week before elections in Bremen, where his party stood to lose votes to Merkel's CDU. But German media patted Gabriel on the back for his indiscretion, because he had found a chink in the iron chancellor's armor.

Nobody questioned his use of the term "industrial espionage" or the wisdom of using secret intelligence material to score points. Admittedly, Merkel was asking for it. When in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's revelations it became clear that the NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters were spying on German politicians -- even tapping Merkel's cell phone -- the chancellor publicly declared that "friends don't spy on friends." This was a stupid thing to say, as she must have known better. Shortly afterwards it turned out that the BND had tapped U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's cell phone -- but only "inadvertently," according to the official explanation. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, Merkel convened a meeting of Germany's European partners to agree on a "No-Spy Treaty," under which EU members -- "friends" -- would not spy on one another. This PR exercise -- shortly before the last general election, incidentally -- was a dig at the British, who of course were not going to sign any such agreement. All the while, however, the BND was supposedly spying on hundreds, possibly thousands of European Union institutions and officials at the behest of their friends at the NSA.

A No-Spy Treaty is an inherently absurd proposition, as is the idea of "friendship" between nations. A husband might swear never to read his wife's diary, but when jealousy strikes, his wife had better be sure her diary is well hidden. In the harsh world of international relations, you want to be sure that what your "friends" are telling you to your face is what they are saying behind closed doors. Trust, but verify.

Riding the Tiger of German Anger

Merkel could have said just that. She did not. She could have pointed out that the cooperation between the BND and the NSA is a valued part of our "friendship" with the U.S.. She did not. She could have stated that it is illegal for the BND to spy on German citizens at home, and that there is no evidence that the BND did that -- and, in fact, there is a lot of evidence that the BND routinely refused such requests by the NSA. She did not. She could have explained that it is not illegal to spy on European institutions and businesses and why such espionage might be necessary. She did not. Instead, she tried to ride the tiger of German anger at the Americans and the "scandal" of cooperation with them; now, though the tiger will not eat her, it just might bite her. Serves her right.

In discussions with American and British visitors, Germans like to point to the Nazi or Stasi past to explain their sensitivity when it comes to data collection. Nonsense. Every German regularly surrenders more information to the tax authorities and state registration office than a British or American person would deem acceptable. The Verfassungsschutz is the only spy agency in a Western democracy dedicated not only to tracking down real and present dangers to the state, but also to documenting "dangerous thoughts," including those of parliamentarians.

The problem with Germany is that part of its political class is politically immature. There is no discussion of concepts such as the national interest; the idea that there is not only a duty to control the security agencies but also to protect them is alien to most people. This is, potentially, much more dangerous than the possibility that the BND might have overstepped its remit now and then.

World Leaders React To NSA Spying