Germany wakes up from its Snowden binge
Nearly four months ago I pronounced the end of the Snowden Operation, at least in the United States. In the aftermath of President Obama’s speech on 17 January, which announced (very) modest reforms to the National Security Agency while maintaining its foreign intelligence operations intact, NSA has been a closed matter politically in America, outside the militant fringe that worships Ed Snowden as its messiah and Glenn Greenwald as his messenger. Leaks derived from Ed’s stolen haul of classified U.S. intelligence and defense materials have continued, as presumably they will for a long time yet, but they’ve largely drifted away from front pages; that NSA – a foreign intelligence agency – does foreign intelligence just isn’t news, much less shocking, to many Americans anymore.
Overseas has been a different matter, which presumably is the whole point of the Snowden Operation now, and alleged NSA activities continue to generate headlines abroad. Germany has been a particular hotspot, which has something to do with so much of the Ed-centric apparat being based in Berlin, and in no Western country have the Snowden revelations caused as much pain for the U.S. Government as in Germany, where the story has been met with that particularly Teutonic combination of navel-gazing and hysteria at which some Germans excel. Of course, there has been more than a bit of hokum surrounding the saga from the outset, including from Chancellor Merkel herself, while Germany’s security services have been well aware of what’s really going on behind the scenes here.
Nevertheless, Merkel and her government cagily did not let a crisis go to waste, seeking a so-called No-Spy Agreement with the United States, which would amount to something like making Germany a sixth eye in the U.S.-led Five Eyes SIGINT Alliance, at a minimum. However, this never stood any realistic chance of coming to pass, for myriad reasons both political and practical, as I’ve said for months, and, in advance of Chancellor Merkel’s arrival in Washington, DC, today, the White House has made clear to Germany that it needs to move on.
What Germany demanded, a bilateral no-spy accord, is something the United States officially has with no foreign countries, not even with its Five Eyes partners, as American interlocutors clarified to German counterparts on multiple occasions. The White House assured Merkel that her communications would not be monitored, but refused to make promises about any other German officials. This was not the answer Berlin was looking for, so it walked away. As The New York Times explains:
“We were ready to conclude an agreement about intelligence cooperation that reiterated key principles about our collection activities around the time of the president’s January speech” that put new limits on the NSA’s activities, a senior administration official said. “But it was the German government who told us they no longer wanted to proceed, not the other way around.”
“They pulled the plug,” another official said. “What the Germans want, and wanted, is that we would never do anything against their laws on their territory.” That is an agreement the United States “has with no country,” the official said.
Foreign intelligence agencies exist to break the laws of foreign countries; if German politicians do not grasp this – their own spies certainly do, and Germany’s BND breaks the laws of many foreign countries every day of the year – then perhaps it’s best that Berlin collected its marbles and went home. Senior U.S. foreign policy and defense officials are very busy right now and have bigger issues to contend with than Germany being peeved about NSA.
Besides, the issue is dying in Germany among normals too. It remains clear that Berlin will never grant Snowden the asylum in Germany that he so desperately wants, after nearly a year in Putinistan, while this week he was blocked from testifying virtually to the German parliamentary commission looking into Ed’s allegations about NSA activities. This is an unambiguous signal from Berlin that the tantrum phase is over and there is no mileage in further irritating Washington, DC, particularly as Europe faces its biggest crisis since the Cold War with Russia’s Special War against Ukraine, which of course is being orchestrated by Ed’s Q&A buddy in the Kremlin.
Today’s edition of the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung has an article entitled “The anger that goes away” that elaborates how Berlin has accepted the new status quo over NSA and Germany is ready to move on from the Snowden drama. As it notes, despite much noise in the German media about increasing surveillance of suspected American and British intelligence operations by Germany’s domestic security service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), a plan to do so having been prepared, nothing has actually been done: “There is little evidence that this will happen. Even before the Ukraine crisis, the plan had few supporters in the government. Now, there are none left to be found.”
Similarly, close partnerships between the BND and U.S. intelligence have continued normally, despite the media circus, and BND chief Gerhard Schindler is reported to have good relations with Admiral Mike Rogers, the new NSA director. The only avenue left for Germans wishing to punish NSA and the United States for its alleged crimes is an investigation underway by the Attorney General’s office in Karlsruhe, but this, too, is stalled, indeed moribund. Without Snowden’s testimony it will soon fade away; as the article notes, “It’s been common knowledge…in Berlin for weeks that a withdrawal from prosecution has already been written in Karlsruhe,” and it’s expected that the attorney general’s signature on that document closing the case is imminent. There will end Germany’s Snowden affair, at least as far as Chancellor Merkel and her government are concerned.
However, let it not be said that Germany and its agencies have done nothing in response to the Snowden Operation. As Süddeutsche Zeitung observes:
The NSA affair is not without consequences. The BfV has prohibited its employees from making the usual July 4th visit for America’s national holiday. Previously, U.S. authorities have usually invited up to a hundred BfV officials – and most of them came too. This is now looks unprofessional.
I’m sure the U.S. Intelligence Community can find other guests to take up those empty seats in time for this July 4th. In the meantime, Germany is dealing with the bad visuals of having so many of its top businesspeople and politicos appearing decidedly cozy, even huggy, with Vladimir Putin while Ukraine burns.