Spies Like Us

Is it because they know us so little — or because they know us too well — that the Americans can’t stop spying on us Germans?

It is a question worth pondering after last week’s revelation that American agents had recruited at least one member of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, and may have done the same with a high-ranking defense official. In response, the German government denounced the “stupidity” of the C.I.A. and expelled its top man in Berlin.

The reports struck nerves already jangled by Edward J. Snowden’s revelations about the scope and depth of the National Security Agency’s surveillance into both private communications and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to qualify the latest scandal as mere stupidity. The N.S.A. revelations could at least be dismissed as an unfortunate but inadvertent result of mission overreach; developing human intelligence sources within the German government is another matter. To many Germans, America’s continuing espionage against one of its supposedly closest allies smacks of arrogance and disrespect.

My suspicion is that this all happened because the Americans know us so well — but don’t accept what they see. American and German intelligence agencies have worked together closely since the beginning of the Cold War. But because that relationship emerged out of the American postwar occupation, there has always been a certain asymmetry to it, one that has both papered over and exacerbated the profound differences between the two countries about the very idea, purpose and limits of intelligence work.

This has come to a head since 9/11, and the revelation that some of the plotters had operated out of Hamburg. Both countries greatly increased their intelligence operations — but in very different ways.

To the Americans, intelligence gathering since 9/11 has been part of a war. Germans would never think that way. To them, intelligence services should play by the rules, as in a game of Scrabble.

This, too, has historical roots. Germany’s stance emerges in part from the bad experiences with intelligence services in the past, namely the Gestapo and the Stasi. On top of this comes a deeply ingrained antimilitarism, and — not to be underestimated — a growing anti-Americanism. When the Germans hear “C.I.A.,” they think of Latin American coups, rendition flights and covert killings.

All of this has practical implications, both legal and political. Legally, the German intelligence services are not allowed to share information with the Americans that might be used for drone strikes, interrogations that might involve torture and wars without a United Nations mandate.

Politically, it means that whenever cooperation is exposed between the C.I.A. and the BND, the public reacts furiously — for example, when it emerged during the Iraq war that the German government had given the Americans coordinates for targets around Baghdad. The media pressed the defense minister for an answer; sweat poured from his brow as he tried to explain why this did not constitute participation in the war.

The C.I.A. staff in Germany was certainly watching, and they clearly concluded that the Germans might not be willing participants in their spy games. From their point of view, sharing intelligence with the Germans must be like being on a pub crawl with a member of a temperance society.

I asked Joseph T. Wippl, who was the C.I.A.’s Berlin station chief in the early 2000s, why the agency had recruited German sources. “The C.I.A. has developed strongly in the direction of a third world agency, in that its officers work in places where the U.S. has great leverage over others and where there is no rule of law,” he said. “They are not used to or have not been trained to work in countries with similar democratic, constitutional institutions.” At the same time, he went on, the Germans had never seemed interested in the level of cooperation that might obviate this sort of unilateral snooping — the sort of treaty relationship that America has with Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

To suggest that the Germans could be treated as a Sixth Eye is a flattering idea. Yet I doubt the Germans would accept the honor. As is the case with America’s nuclear umbrella, we’re happy to have the protection while being still happier not to have to carry the responsibility. If Germany entered into a real intelligence alliance with America, the government would have to deal with a load of dirty knowledge — and lose the benefit of plausible deniability.

Does all this justify the level of mistrust C.I.A. spies show Germany? No. We might be law abiders, but we’re neither naïve nor America’s enemy. As far as anyone knows, this country has never withheld crucial information from America. Remember the alleged mobile anthrax factories that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented at the United Nations as a case in point for invading Iraq? The informant behind this claim — code name Curveball — was a BND source.

The C.I.A. needs to stop wasting time, energy and money on our intelligence people — and respect us Germans as we are. A bit reluctant at times, but generally highly reliable. As in any relationship, respect will be worth a lot more in the long run than the short-term gains of impatient snooping.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

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