NSA, Germany and Handygate: A Reality Check

Right now Germany is in the midst of a full-fledged political storm, dubbed Handygate in the media, over alleged espionage by the National Security Agency against the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone is said to have been intercepted by NSA for years. Given German sensitivities about privacy that linger from both the Nazi and Communist periods, as well as the well known national proclivity towards introspection – Nabelschau (navel-gazing) being a core German competency – the resulting scandal is verging on the obsessional among some Germans.

All this is of course being fanned by the media, especially the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has a long-standing reputation for sensationalism about espionage, particularly American; it has also been a regular conduit for stolen NSA materials from the defector Edward Snowden. What makes this interesting is that one need not be a seasoned counterintelligence hand to note that some of the newest materials could not have come from Snowden; a bigger game is now afoot, and it’s centered on Germany (where, let it be noted, key members of the Wikileaks apparat Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras reside).

There are oddities abounding in this case. In the first place, due to the laws drawn up by the Federal Republic of Germany at its late 1940s founding, the alleged NSA activities that have caused this firestorm may actually be legal. Moreover, a great deal of what’s going on now is political theater which Chancellor Merkel has to be witting of at some level. If she’s not, one must question her basic fitness for dealing with any international affairs, though her longtime use of a fundamentally insecure cellphone to conduct government business boggles the mind of any intelligence veteran.

The heads of Germany’s intelligence services are now headed to Washington, DC, for meetings with the White House and NSA to smooth over the scandal. At bottom, Germany (like France), seeks not to shut down NSA espionage, rather to get closer to it. Berlin has long been jealous of London and the other Anglosphere members of the so-called Five Eyes community, the SIGINT alliance born in the Second World War which, to this day, constitutes the most successful international intelligence partnership in world history. Perhaps because they were on the wrong side when that alliance was created in the days of the ULTRA secret, German intelligence agencies have always wanted into the club and its privileged inner circle. Although Germany enjoys a tight spy relationship with the United States (and Britain too), Berlin knows its place, and it would like an upgrade.

Abandoning the US-German intelligence partnership is simply not an option, no matter what politicians may say, and regardless of how much hysteria is created by the media. The reasons for this are well known to intelligence insiders, and are elaborated in a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. Its title, “Technically Backward and Helpless,” is painfully accurate. There can be no doubt that Germany’s intelligence and security services, preeminently the Federal Intelligence Service (BND, Germany’s CIA plus NSA equivalent) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, equivalent to Britain’s Security Service), are indeed deeply dependent on American partners, and have been since the day of their creation.

The depths of that dependency are laid bare in Die Welt‘s account. Germany’s “helpless dependence” on the U.S. Intelligence Community is not new but it entered a complicated phase after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States which, lest we forget, were staged mostly out of Hamburg, a fact which the Die Welt piece notes: “The Americans did not want to rely exclusively on us after September 11th. That is understandable,” explained a German intelligence official.  Thus was born increased attention to Germany among U.S. spy agencies.

Additionally, Germany’s intelligence agencies are underfunded and lack the technical capabilities of other leading Western countries; in espionage, Germany has chosen to punch below its economic and political weight, and now bears the consequences, namely deep dependency on foreign partners such as NSA and CIA. As I recently reported, the BND head Gerhard Schindler recently called for more reliance on foreign partners, not less, and here he was simply reflecting budgetary and political realities in Germany, where there is scant appetite for more investment in security.

Even in domestic intelligence matters Germany is heavily dependent on American help, especially from NSA, whose SIGINT has been provided to the Germans in many cases, leading to the disruption of a number of planned terrorist attacks in Germany since 2001.  “Without information from the Americans, there would have been successful terrorist attacks in Germany in the past years,” explained a BfV official, truthfully.

For these reasons it’s unlikely that any big changes to German intelligence or its relationship to NSA and CIA will happen soon. Although the current political brouhaha is serious, even though some of the hand-wringing is obviously staged by politicos who know better, this, too, shall pass, unless Germany wants to spend significantly more money on its own security and intelligence. And, as yet, there is no sign of that.

Germany’s condition reflects the reality that too many European countries have underinvested in their own defense and security since the end of the Cold War, and are therefore deeply dependent on the United States for assistance. I would like the Germans and other European countries to take more responsibility for their own security and fund their militaries and intelligence agencies at higher levels.  They would be better partners then too. But I’m not optimistic on that front. Protesting, after all, is easier than reforming bureaucracies or finding more money in lean budgetary times.

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