In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden controversy, which has revealed massive National Security Administration (NSA) spying in Germany, top officials in Berlin have expressed indignation that Washington would turn on a friendly ally. Such righteous calls, however, ring somewhat hollow. Indeed, it is possible the Angela Merkel government may have condoned the program, codenamed PRISM, or even collaborated with the Obama administration. What is more, as I reported some four years ago, Germany has been covertly working with Washington to develop joint surveillance satellite technology to the exclusion of other European powers.
Revelations about the sensitive NSA program, which were leaked by rogue whistleblower Edward Snowden, place high level officials on both sides of the Atlantic in an embarrassing situation. According to Der Spiegel magazine, the NSA PRISM program taps a whopping half billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany on any given month. Snowden's sensitive disclosures could jeopardize upcoming EU-U.S. free trade talks, and the leader of Germany's opposition Green Party has said that the EU should stop exchanging banking and flight data with Washington. The Green Party has even gone so far as to suggest that Germany should provide diplomatic asylum for Snowden himself.
For many Germans, the NSA disclosures hark back to the darkest days of the Nazi Gestapo and Stasi secret police. Angela Merkel condemned the Obama administration for its surveillance program, remarking that "the monitoring of friends -- this is unacceptable. It can't be tolerated. We're no longer in the Cold War." In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to account for recent NSA spying disclosures.
A German Smokescreen?
Despite the diplomatic brouhaha, Der Spiegel suggests that Merkel may be blowing a smokescreen. When the magazine asked the German Federal Intelligence Service or BND whether it was aware of the NSA spying program, authorities denied such rumors. However, Der Spiegel writes that "it is hard to imagine that the NSA acted without the involvement of the BND." Smelling a rat, the magazine notes that the international dimensions of U.S. surveillance had been known about for weeks, yet up until recently Merkel was quiet as a Cheshire cat. Indeed, when Obama recently visited Berlin, Merkel merely asked a couple of "polite questions" about the NSA program and that was it.
Only time will tell if Merkel has secretly been collaborating with the NSA and feigned righteous indignation over the PRISM program. Nevertheless, as I reported earlier, Germany has been in league with U.S. intelligence for some time. According to WikiLeaks, which has recently been offering logistical support to Snowden, the Germans sought to develop a joint satellite program with Washington. Sensitive diplomatic cables reveal that the program, code-named HiROS, or High Resolution Optical Satellite System, would reportedly detect objects on the ground as small as 50 centimeters in diameter and take infrared images at night.
Because of the controversial nature of HiROS, the U.S. and Germany planned to present the project to the public as a civilian project which would study climate change and improve the environment. In reality, however, HiROS was "under the total control" of German intelligence and the national aerospace center. Observing the growing German-U.S. détente, neighboring France grew concerned and sought to derail the satellite program at every turn. The Merkel government, however, which had long sought to become a leading player providing satellite data, disregarded French entreaties.
Cynical Machiavellian Games
Despite their joint collaboration on the HiROS program, it is clear from the NSA scandal that both Germany and the U.S. are engaged in backroom Machiavellian games. Indeed, according to recent disclosures the U.S. has tapped communications at EU offices in Washington, Brussels and the United Nations in New York. Moreover, according to reports, the U.S. regards Germany as a "third class diplomatic partner" which is no more reliable than China. Meanwhile, the Europeans are no better and have been monitoring Washington in turn. Speaking to the Associated Press, European spies admitted that they had tracked U.S. officials to see what they were up to in Germany. One former intelligence official remarked, "if anyone thinks the Europeans don't spy too, they're nuts."
Recently, Snowden appealed to Germany for diplomatic protection, but thus far Berlin has delivered no response to the persecuted whistle-blower. Though Snowden has supporters amongst the opposition Green Party, the Merkel government has flippantly dismissed such suggestions. Perhaps that is not too surprising in light of the history. If WikiLeaks and NSA disclosures prove anything, it is that Germany is a crass player which collaborates with the Obama administration whenever it is expedient to do so, even if that means crossing fellow European partners. At other times, however, Berlin goes against Washington by engaging in its own surveillance activities. Such double-crossing, however, clearly has its limits. In the end, Germany knows that it cannot alienate the Obama administration when it comes to harboring pesky whistle-blowers who dare to expose Washington's massive spy network.