The Germans are once again angry with Washington. News stories about an alleged mole in Germany’s intelligence services, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), providing state secrets to Americans has outraged the entire government in Berlin and poured more oil on to public fires as well—already burning over the revelations by Edward Snowden about U.S. surveillance in Germany. Even the President of Germany had expressed his frustration with the matter.

As is the case in state security matters, which are anything but transparent, things are not always as they initially appear. That includes relations between German and American intelligence services. Yet, even if the suspect under investigation is a rogue agent, any connection between him and U.S. officials is going to only underscore suspicions about American motives and, indeed, undermine further credibility of U.S. efforts to repair the damage down by Snowden’s files. The damage is already done.

That Germans are hyper sensitive on this subject is a well-known fact and is demonstrated by the Parliamentary Committee’s ongoing investigation of the NSA affair. References to the experience of the Nazis as well as the East German secret police are pervasive.

Yet, even that history does not fully explain the clash of views. There are strong feelings of resentment that Germany is being treated at best as an unreliable partner and at worst as a staging ground for U.S. global espionage tactics. Some refer to that as a kind of “cyber occupation.” Given the long post-WWII war history in which the Federal Republic of Germany was a partner in a web of alliances and institutions, this affair is interpreted as an insult.

Looking back on that post war era, the attitude in Washington during the Cold War was that a divided Germany was indeed a platform for espionage. That was also the reason why the United States used its extensive presence in West Germany to build up an infrastructure to enable surveillance activities. Following German unification, the American military presence was to be gradually and significantly reduced. But the surveillance infrastructures left behind remained in place. Indeed, following 9/11, those tools were deemed that much more important, in part because of some aspect of the planning of the attack were formed in Hamburg. As the scope of U.S. surveillance was enormously expanded in the years afterwards, that also involved the use of those resources still in Germany.

Those resources were also shared with the German intelligence services on many occasions in the search for threats anywhere to be found. That was—and is still today—valuable to the Germans whose capabilities could not match the reach and the technology of the Americans.

Yet, that advantage was not going to be enough to sooth the anger Germans felt about American snooping on Chancellor Merkel or many other targets. The recent news about a German student being allegedly tracked by the NSA in connection with his work on encryption tools caused more outrage. And, just this week new reports about the ability of the NSA to access detailed communications of both American and non-American emails and store them indefinitely generated more backlash.

The current German-American clash reflects not only divergent legacies, but also attitudes toward both privacy and preventive policies. While U.S. surveillance policy views the need to prevent bad things from happening, also to friends like Germany, using all the tools available to look under every hay stack seems self evident. The world is, after all, a dangerous place. But the same tools preventing terrorist threats can also be made available to keep track of what both enemies and friends are doing. And that is where the unique American ability to purse global monitoring begins to run against both the claims of other countries and their citizens to maintain their privacy and their own intelligence. It also runs into position in the United States, which is having its own debates over surveillance within its domestic framework. But those debates do not generally include the concerns of non-Americans either legally or politically.

The current clash over the alleged German spy affair is probably not going to change the patterns of intelligence operations anywhere. Nations will continue to gather intelligence about each other no matter what kind of relations they have: good, bad, or indifferent. National interests still dominate policy choices.

But that should also involve expecting that the intelligence services are sufficiently intelligent themselves to know when chasing a lead makes no sense or indeed is simply counter productive in political terms.

Right now, the ball is in the U.S. court to respond to both allegations and concerns in Germany. While Germans cannot wish away the causes and needs for tools for intelligence, the United States cannot ignore the outrage and resentment currently pulsing through the German public. Washington has clearly mishandled the impact of the Snowden revelations. The responses from Washington have been at times arrogant, patronizing, and alienating. There needs to be a more forthright response with more effort to explain just what our policies are and just how much the United States is willing to cooperate in real terms—not just in rhetorical references to partnership.

As for Germany, if wants to utilize U.S. intelligence for its own purposes, while loudly—and in some cases justifiably—criticizing its overreach, there needs to be a more transparent understanding of what the parameters of surveillance are today. And more importantly, there needs to be a more transparent public debate in Germany about this dimension of national policy. The question is: who is going to lead that debate?

Just as the American debate seeks a better balance between security and privacy, there needs to be a better balance between allies and friends across borders. The German-American case is a good place to start.

Twenty five years ago, then President George H W Bush stood in a not yet unified Germany and called for both the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany to engage in partnership in leadership. That Germany is now more a leader in Europe than in 1989. Leaders may sometimes find partnership difficult. For almost seven decades, Berlin and Washington have shared a wide web of interests and interdependence. That has been of great value to both sides of that relationship. It should not be taken for granted.

  • Rob Houck

    German views on privacy were formed centuries ago, not just during the Nazi/Stasi eras, and are deeply felt. They are in part reactions against what Germans saw as English free market and French revolutionary excesses. There are lots of values Americans and Germans don’t share. Despite what politicians say in boring speeches.

  • Do I sense a double standard here? Compare the harsh reaction of the US intelligence establishment to the Jonathan Pollard case, another mole working for a “freindly” foreign intelligence agency, ostensibly for idealistic reasons. Or Alan Nunn May, the British atomic spy, who claimed he was only following Churchill’s public pledge to share all secret weapons developments with their then Soviet allies. Didn’t stop the US and Britain from sentencing them to severe prison terms and souring relations with the so-called friendly agencies (Mossad and GRU/KGB).