Trust but Verify

While the Snowden disclosures pose a serious menace to the contemporary transatlantic relationship at large, as well as to concrete security threats, it is not simply a recent problem. During the event “Trust but Verify: Are U.S.-German (Intelligence) Relations at Stake,” DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow Eva Jobs explained the powerful trope of “trust” in German-American intelligence cooperation.

The intelligence liaison between the U.S. and Western Germany was established through the cooperation of U.S. military intelligence with the German Wehrmacht General Reinhard Gehlen as early as in the fall of 1945. However, the explicit hierarchy was characterized by a West German dependency on American willingness to cooperate. Given the risk of trusting a former enemy, particular in the sensitive field of intelligence, the U.S. tried to retain control over General Gehlen and his organization. However, motivation for this leap of faith on the part of the CIA stemmed more from strategic and pragmatic calculations. The fear of the Soviet Union exceeded the distrust associated with Germany and its Nazi past. Hence, the slogan became “trust but verify.”

The Soviet Union, as a mutual adversary during the Cold War, helped tie the transatlantic bonds. Regardless, cooperating with the former enemy on such sensitive grounds as intelligence and military was difficult for those who would have rather controlled and supervised the German agencies. What benefits were there from granting Germany trust? Obvious advantages were the benefits of shared information, the coverage of more regions, reliance on native speakers, and the collective use of facilities. The American intelligence community played an important role as an ally and in nation building, helping to stabilize the budding West German democracy. With little support from the British and French sides, Germany had few alternatives. To this day, the strong cooperation includes infrastructural support and “circular sharing” (also known as Ringteilung), which means that intelligence services share information with each other that they would be forbidden to acquire themselves.

Today’s state of affairs goes well beyond the intelligence liaison’s issue, and has become a serious political problem. Given the lack of debate concerning Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) practices or the poor relationship with French intelligence, the revelations appear as a particular German-American rift. The presentation highlighted three points of dissent between the countries.

First, historical experiences with security and privacy can lead to divergent priorities. Given their negative experience with mass surveillance by the East German Stasi and the Nazi regime, many Germans prioritize privacy in almost all aspects of life and require their government to respect clear boundaries. On the other hand, Americans never suffered from a secret police apparatus that was aimed at the entire population. Rather, they were able to see the benefits from intelligence work in the 9/11 aftermath. At the same time, the American system of oversight committees and public hearings encourages transparency well beyond the German intelligence agencies.

Second, intelligence concerns cyber security. It is not only criminals that pose a threat private data, but also our own (and allied) governments seem to monitor, collect, and control our personal data and metadata. To make reasonable use of the internet as one of the greatest technologies of our time, we need to establish reasonable duties and limits of intelligence and intelligence cooperation. This includes collaboration between policy, intelligence, the private sector, and judiciary committees on both national and bilateral levels.

Third, education and accountability should serve as the link between the public and political sphere. Before the Snowden disclosures, the ignorance in German public and political institutions was astounding. A pragmatic use of intelligence requires widespread media literacy and the awareness of how to safely share information. A further step includes improving the legal accountability and the expertise of oversight committees. The German administration is now working to solve some of its own issues, supported by a continuous transatlantic dialogue.

During the discussion, participants suggested that the American and German governments should identify cases in which trust in the intelligence liaison has been broken and work out differences from there. This process of turning policy issues into trust would help to reshape the relationship. Further, participants were surprised to learn that the German society seems to lack interest in the debate about German-American circular sharing. Hence, it seems as if some of the lost confidence in German intelligence is simply projected onto the United States.

DATE: Thursday, December 4, 2014
TIME: 12:00 – 1:30pm
LOCATION: AICGS, R.G. Livingston Conference Room, 1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036