Pick Your Fights Wisely: The Value of Transatlantic Intelligence Cooperation
Chancellor Merkel’s recent visit to Washington, DC, created a number of quite remarkable moments that will be remembered as they marked a new tone in transatlantic relations. Not least, the meeting will be remembered for Merkel’s facial expression when the new president of the United States suggested that they share common experiences of surveillance through U.S. intelligence agencies. Almost four years after Edward Snowden’s revelations about extensive American espionage activities, it appeared a rather clumsy reference. President Trump seemed totally oblivious of the public outcry in Germany and a thorough parliamentary investigation of German collaboration that brought to light the global dimension of reconnaissance and digital operations in that field.
Besides Mr. Trump’s unproven claims that former president Barack Obama had ordered unlawful eavesdropping on him personally by exploiting CIA and NSA capabilities, this was neither the first nor the only open attack on the U.S. intelligence community coming from the current White House. Suspicion already emerged when, during the transition, Mr. Trump refused to take all but two intelligence briefings, because, quote, “I’m, like, a smart person; I don’t have to be told the same thing […] every single day.” Rejecting expertise in the both complex and (to him) previously widely unfamiliar field of foreign and security policy alarmed not only senior intelligence personnel, but also the allies across the Atlantic early on. Even more so, when Mr. Trump, only days after inauguration, issued an executive order that granted his adviser Stephen K. Bannon a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council while, at the same time, it downgraded the DNI’s (Director of National Intelligence) role, Washington’s security establishment was in turmoil.
A couple more incidents since then, most of them presumably not exactly to Mr. Trump’s liking, involved U.S. intelligence senior staff or areas of expertise. Stubborn repetition of alleged wiretapping without presenting any proof caused public hearings of the House Intelligence Committee and statements by two intelligence directors Michael Rogers (NSA) and James Comey (FBI) who both rebuffed the claims and substantiated allegations about ties between Trump’s election campaign and the Russian government. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had secretly discussed sensitive topics with the Russian ambassador and then lied about this fact, was forced into resignation by revealing intelligence leaks in February. Although leaking classified information ought to be the last resort of resistance and looks too much like a tit-for-tat response, it somewhat illustrates the current state of affairs.
The Trump White House seems to be at war with the U.S. intelligence community. There is no doubt about the negative impact this has and is going to have in the future, not only regarding domestic security and stability. It makes the “free world as we know it“ less safe as a whole by shifting the priorities and interrupting continuities; it therefore also hurts transatlantic cooperation with respect to counterterrorism, organized crime, and proliferation, and it might even destroy an arduously built and regularly contested U.S.-German/EU bond. Yes, both Germany and the European Union have become aware of the fact that they need to invest, strategically plan, and lead more than they ever have. The mere pace of development is arguably a matter of different perspectives, but the overall willingness to proceed is worth recognition. However, without the United States as a reliable principal partner, all European efforts to improve their systematic security environment will remain shallow. Germany and the EU need the U.S., but the U.S. also greatly benefits from Germany’s and EU’s involvement and would suffer tremendous setbacks over fundamental and destructive disagreements here. By continuing structural as well as personal ties in the field of intelligence and in general the security architecture, much of the already achieved and restored trust will help in tackling the imminent threats to both our societies, and should therefore be given a top priority.