The question to bear in mind, when reading this whole sorry tale, is this: If Americans are, on average, no stupider than Germans, then why are their intelligence services so stupid?
After the most recent revelations about American spying in Germany, there was considerable speculation among members of the Bundestag (parliament) that Germany might “get even” by inviting US whistleblower Edward Snowden to leave his Moscow exile and come to Berlin instead. But last weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her traditional pre-summer vacation press conference, rained all over that idea.
“We learned things (from Snowden) that we didn’t know before, and that’s always interesting,” she said—but “granting asylum isn’t an act of gratitude.” Given that one of the things she learned from Snowden was that the US National Security Agency was bugging her mobile phone, this showed admirable restraint on her part, but even Merkel’s restraint only goes so far.
Only a week before, her patience with persistent American spying, even after Snowden’s revelations, snapped quite dramatically: she ordered the US Central Intelligence Agency’s “chief of station” at the American embassy in Berlin to leave the country. German media reports stressed that such drastic action had only been taken previously when dealing with “pariah states like North Korea or Iran.”
Clemens Binninger, the chair of the parliamentary committee that oversees the German intelligence service, explained that the action came in response to the US “failure to cooperate on resolving various allegations, starting with the NSA and up to the latest incidents.” The “latest incidents” were the arrest of two German citizens, accused of spying for the US — whose key contact was the CIA station chief in Berlin.
The United States has never formally apologized for tapping Merkel’s phone. It refused to give her access to the NSA file on her before she visited Washington in April. And it went on paying a spy who worked for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND—Federal Intelligence Service) right down to this month.
“One can only cry at the sight of so much stupidity,” said Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, insisting that the information given to the US by the spies was of no real value. That’s probably true—yet the American controllers paid their spy in the BND almost US$40 000 in cash for 218 secret German documents downloaded to computer memory sticks and handed over at secret locations in Austria.
Some of those secret documents were even about the discussions of the German parliamentary committee that was investigating the earlier American spying efforts, including the bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s phone. The American spy agencies simply don’t know how to stop spying, even when they have been caught red-handed.
They only got away with such brazen behaviour for so long because the Germans naively trusted them. The spy from the BND, for example, simply sent the US embassy an email asking if they were interested in “cooperation”. The German authorities didn’t pick up on it because they didn’t monitor even the uncoded communications of a “friendly” embassy.
The spy was caught only when he got greedy and sent a similar email to the Russian embassy. Russian communications are monitored as a matter of course in all Western countries, so the German authorities put the spy under surveillance, and almost immediately they discovered that he was already selling his information to the Americans.
“We must focus more strongly on our so-called allies,” said Stephan Mayer, a security spokesman of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, and one of the first consequences will be the cancellation of Germany’s “no-spy” agreement with the United States. In future, US activities in Germany will be closely monitored by the German intelligence service.
What is clear from all this is that the American intelligence agencies are completely out of control. They are so powerful that even after the revelations of massive abuse in the past year very few politicians in Washington dare to support radical cuts in their budgets or the scope of their operations. They collect preposterous amounts of irrelevant information, alienating friends and allies and abusing the civil rights of their own citizens in the process.
The German intelligence agency (there’s only one) doesn’t behave like that. It chooses its targets carefully, it operates within the law, and it doesn’t spy on allies. Why the big difference?
It’s because the annual budget of the Bundesnachrichtendienst is just under $1 billion, and it employs only 6 000 people. The United States has only five times as many people as Germany, but its “intelligence community” includes 17 agencies with a total budget of US$80 billion dollars. There are 854 000 Americans with top-secret security clearances.
The American intelligence community grew fat and prospered through four decades of Cold War and two more decades of the “War on Terror”. It is now so big, so rich, so powerful that it can do practically anything it wants.
And often it does stuff just because it can, even if it’s totally counter-productive.
Dyer is a London-based freelance journalist.