Why Spy on Merkel?

November 7, 2013 Print

James R. Clapper, Jr., Director of National Intelligence, answered that question in testimony before the U.S. Congress: “As long as I have been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions in whatever form is a basic tenet of what we collect and analyze.”

As a flood of revelations from the whistleblowing U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have shown, Germany is hardly exempt from this collection. For decades, the NSA has been vacuuming up and storing huge amounts of phone calls, e-mails, and internet data from German citizens, businesses, and top politicians and government officials. Snowden revealed that the NSA’s efforts included tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone since 2002—even before she became chancellor.

Germany Affronted

Humiliated by what she called a “breach of trust” by a close German ally, Merkel phoned President Barack Obama—from a landline in her office—to complain. Obama promised that her cell phone was not now being tapped by the NSA and would not be in the future, implicitly admitting that it had been for the past eleven years.

Subsequent revelations, based mainly on materials Snowden supplied to Der Spiegel, indicate that the wiretapping was coordinated from secure rooms atop the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt am Main and the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, located in Pariser Platz, just a stone’s throw from Merkel’s chancellery, the Bundestag, and most federal ministries. These rooms housed NSA-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “special collection teams,” who performed the surveillance.

The German media and the German public vented outrage and indignation. The result: the worst crisis in German-American relations for decades—at least since Germany’s refusal to support the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Was the cost of such damage to this relationship conceivably outweighed by the benefits from the intelligence collected from the Merkel tap? Without knowing what the tap yielded, it is hard to say. Moreover, is it worthwhile to be spying so extensively on Germans by a NSA on, as Secretary of State John Kerry called it, “automatic pilot”?

German Strength and Interests

Germany is an economic powerhouse, the world’s third biggest economy with an export surplus far bigger than any other country’s except China. It does not, as one Financial Times columnist noted, shy away from power politics when it comes to protecting its export industries, such as cars, chemicals, and machinery. It is the third largest weapons exporter in the world. It is the decisive voice in European Union (EU) policymaking. Merkel is by all odds one of the world’s three or four most influential political leaders today.

During the Cold War American and German priority foreign policy objectives coincided and were simple: counter Soviet expansionism and influence in Europe. With over 200,000 troops stationed in the Federal Republic to protect it, Washington had great leverage that country.

Collaboration between the CIA and Germany’s foreign intelligence outfit, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has always been close. Indeed, the CIA fathered the BND, supervising and financing it from

1946 until West Germany gained sovereignty in 1955. (It never, however, accorded the BND the same level of trust as it did, for example, British intelligence, fearing—justifiably, as it turned out—penetration by Soviet and East German spy services.) CIA-BND collaboration became closer after 9/11 to combat terrorism; the BND has for years been supplying the NSA with large amounts of its intelligence intercepts from outside the Federal Republic. British intelligence, a document from Snowden reveals, admires the BND for its “good access to the heart of the internet.”


German and American divergences in foreign affairs have been growing and Washington’s leverage in Berlin has been declining since the Cold War ended. With it, Germany’s need for American military protection has declined as well. The divergences stem in great part from Germany’s extensive trade and investment.

In the case of three countries in particular, German interests may run counter to U. S. objectives:

  • While Merkel has criticized Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, Russia provides a large export market and its natural gas supplies are essential to Germany. After stepping down as chancellor, Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) member Gerhard Schröder, became chairman of Nord Strom, a pipeline subsidiary of Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian energy conglomerate—a position unthinkable for any other western political leader and a matter of concern, perhaps greater concern, if Merkel now forms a Grand Coalition with the SPD, as seems likely.
  • China provides an even larger market for German business and its relations with Berlin have been growing ever closer. Merkel has paid numerous visits to China, usually accompanied by a retinue of corporate executives, who sign deals in Beijing.
  • Iran is a third country with which Germany has long-standing business connections. In the past, German companies have supplied much equipment to Iran’s nuclear industry.

In all such cases, Washington surely regards it as more important than ever to understand what Germany thinks and intends to achieve, and what policy shifts Merkel might be contemplating, on economic sanctions against Iran, for instance.

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  1. avatar Rob Houck says:

    This is the best analysis I have seen so far. What about other countries? And who in Germany is exempt? Also Gysi? The guys in the Hamburg cell? And domestic politics? An apology?

  2. avatar Frank Meyer says:

    What is to be done from a German perspective? Put data security on top of the agenda in the EU, cancel the SWIFT agreement, increase funds for the BND massively and suspend the TTIP negotiations for the next 3-5 years. After a cooling of period the relations between the USA and germany can be rebuild.

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