The annual Fourth of July party this year did not go quite as the U.S. embassy in Berlin had planned. The event still gave the German political elites a chance to mingle with American diplomats, sample a hotdog and take home a box of donuts. But even as the band played the Star-Spangled Banner, some of the guests couldn't stop grumbling about the spying habits of their hosts.
Just before presiding over the party on Friday, U.S. Ambassador John Emerson was called into the Foreign Office in Berlin to explain the latest case of alleged U.S. espionage against the German government. It wasn’t the first time. Since last fall, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel learned that the U.S. had been tapping her cell phone for years, U.S spying allegations have eroded decades of trust between Berlin and Washington. But the mess just keeps getting worse.
Last week alone saw two separate scandals involving U.S. espionage in Germany. The first one broke on Thursday, when German media reported that the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, has been spying on a German privacy advocate who works to protect Internet users from the snooping of ... the NSA. The following day, July 4, a second scandal broke in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media, which reported that an employee of Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, the BND, had confessed to selling secrets to the U.S. government. New details of that case continued to emerge on Monday, with Reuters reporting that the CIA was involved in the spying operation that led to the man's recruitment. But German officials have confirmed little about the investigation, saying only that a 31-year-old man was arrested July 2 on suspicion of spying for a foreign government.
So Chancellor Merkel, who is on a trip to China this week, was cautious when asked about the case on Monday. “If this is true, then I believe we are dealing with a very serious development," she told a news conference in Beijing. "I would see this as a clear contradiction to what I understand as trusting cooperation of intelligence services as well as of partners."
Not everyone in the German leadership has been so diplomatic. After their long experience living under the watch of their own secret police — first the Nazi gestapo and then the East German Stasi — the German public is particularly sensitive to issues of individual privacy. So they were especially alarmed last year when Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, revealed how millions of German citizens, including Chancellor Merkel, had been caught up in the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs.
William Binney, another NSA whistle-blower, testified last week before the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the Snowden leaks in Germany, and his characterization of U.S. spying practices as “totalitarian” and “senseless” made headlines across the country. The latest set of spying allegations came out against this background, and the public reaction was summed up nicely over the weekend by German President Joachim Gauck, who said if the allegations are true, “It’s really time to say, ‘Enough already!’”
What makes the most recent scandal particularly galling is not the scale of the spying so much as its apparent clumsiness, says Sylke Tempel, the editor of a leading foreign-affairs journal in Berlin, Internationale Politik. The suspected double agent at the BND was apparently not even providing the U.S. any groundbreaking intelligence. According to the German media reports, he approached the U.S. embassy in Berlin offering a small stash of secret files, some of which were related to the German Parliament’s probe into the Snowden leaks. “They could have gotten that same information just from talking to German lawmakers,” says Tempel. Instead, the U.S. reportedly paid the man about $34,000 for his secrets.
Asked to respond to these accusations on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would “work with the Germans to resolve the situation appropriately.” But he declined to say whether any of the claims were true. “What I can say, more generally, though, is the relationship that the United States has with Germany is incredibly important,” Earnest said.
But if the U.S. had wanted to repair some of the damage to that relationship, it could have informed the BND that one of its employees was hawking secrets, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, a think tank focusing on U.S.-German ties. “That would have been a huge help in rebuilding trust,” she says. “So I don't know what our American friends were thinking. This is just awful incompetence.”
So far, the scandal doesn't seem likely to cause any sudden rupture in relations, but the broader lack of trust is sure to eat away at Germany's willingness to help the U.S. on a variety of issues. By the end of this year, the U.S. is hoping to sign a free-trade and investment deal with the E.U., where Germany has a decisive vote. In the Western standoff with Russia over Ukraine, the U.S. also needs to maintain solidarity across the Atlantic, and it could find support dwindling for new sanctions against Moscow if Germany turns away. “The spying just adds to the feeling of exasperation, disillusionment, fatigue with America,” says Tempel. “It becomes so much harder to defend the transatlantic relationship.”
That issue becomes more important — especially for younger German voters — as each new spying scandal breaks, and that has made it costlier for a German politician to tout the U.S. as a trusted friend and ally. “This is indicative of larger trust issues,” says Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund. “This isn’t something that just blows over.” Yet when the U.S. ambassador arrived on Friday to address the Fourth of July party, he made no mention of the scandals that all his guests were talking about. “We are a nation of forests and fields and farmlands,” Emerson assured them from the stage before the band began to play. “Of mountains high and deserts wide.” But to a growing part of the German electorate, the U.S. has come to feel a bit like a nation of spies.