Despite fury over US spying, Germany's options limited

The decision to ask the CIA's Berlin station chief to leave may be the most Germany can do to express its anger at the US, on whom it relies for military and intelligence aid.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
People walk past the US Embassy in Berlin on Thursday. Germany asked the top US intelligence official at the Berlin embassy on Thursday to leave the country, a highly unusual step reflecting the deep anger within Angela Merkel's government at the discovery of two suspected US spies within a week.

Spiegel Online today called it a “diplomatic earthquake.” The daily Sueddeutche Zeitung called it "an unprecedented act of protest against American arrogance.”

But when it comes to protesting US spying, Germany's decision to ask the CIA's Berlin station chief to leave may be the most that it can realistically do.

Two separate accusations of American spying within German borders in less than a week have caused widespread outrage in Germany, leading to the CIA official's ouster. But Berlin's ability to force a change in its ally's behavior is limited due to Germany's dependence on the US for military and intelligence aid.

The highly unusual decision, announced yesterday, represents a serious low-point in relations between Germany and the US. While in recent years American officials have been kicked out of places such as Venezuela or Bolivia, it’s extremely rare among close allies.

But it comes after a series of incidents showing a broad, concerted effort by the US in recent years to spy on its NATO ally – an effort that has infuriated Germany.

Last week German authorities arrested a German intelligence employee who is suspected of selling documents to the CIA. And this week, authorities raided the home and offices of an individual reportedly working in the German military industry, also suspected of moonlighting as a US spy.

And both cases come against the backdrop of revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whose work revealed widespread American surveillance in Europe, including of the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Although President Obama apologized for that incident and promised her cell phone is not currently tapped, Germany has been unsatisfied with the US response overall to its concerns over spying, especially in a country that lived under the Gestapo in World War II and the Stasi during the cold war. Germany has pushed, unsuccessfully, for a “no spy” agreement with the US.

Mrs. Merkel, who called US spying a “waste of energy” yesterday, may have been forced to take the extraordinary diplomatic step amid domestic criticism that she’s too soft on the US. The US has not responded specifically to the scandal this week.

Today, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the German government’s decision inevitable. "Our decision to ask the current representative of the US intelligence services to leave Germany is the right decision," he said, "a necessary step, and a fitting reaction to the break of trust which has occurred."

But, it’s also largely symbolic. The ouster of the intelligence head in Berlin doesn’t create obstacles on the ground for intelligence-sharing.

“This first move is just a signal. They just gave a ‘yellow card,’ like in soccer,” says Marcel Dickow, an international security associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

And Germany likely cannot act punitively against the US – by ending Berlin's close cooperation with the US on counter-terrorism cases, for example – without hurting its own interests.

“Germany has such a dependence on American military and defense capabilities, they wouldn’t do anything to risk any engagement or collaboration,” says Stefan Heumann, the deputy program director of the "European Digital Agenda" at the Berlin think tank Foundation for a New Responsibility.

If German anger mounted, Mr. Dickow says Berlin might consider decreasing bilateral cooperation between the intelligence service agencies of each country or limiting its international cooperation. But a Christian Science Monitor in-depth report in November on the fallout from the NSA scandal suggests that Berlin would be very hesitant to limit intelligence-sharing with the US, whose operations dwarf those of Germany.

The German tabloid Bild reported Friday that the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, would limit its participation with its American counterparts to the “bare essentials.” That means anything related “to the immediate security interests of Germany, such as the safety of German soldiers in Afghanistan or other foreign missions as well as the defense against terrorist threat,” the paper reports.

Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, head of the Research Institute for Peace Studies in Weilheim, Germany, calls the move significant, but likely temporary. “I think it’s only a question of weeks until we’ll find business as usual,” he says in an email.

He notes that while German Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere announced stronger counterintelligence against US services, Germany's capabilities are too limited. Politicians have also called for infiltration of US services, but Mr. Schmidt-Eenboom says that is not realistic. "American counterintelligence is too strong," he says. Besides, he adds, intelligence cooperation "is essential for the BND, not for the CIA."

Still, many have voiced hope that Germany's public outrage will serve as a “wake-up” call to the US.

“Of course the US is in a stronger position, but it comes at a high political cost for Germans and the transatlantic-relationship,” says Mr. Heumann “The German government is trying to send that message to Washington.”

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