The German Government’s Surveillance Hypocrisy

Over the last few weeks Germany has been rocked by a series of leaked government documents revealing new details on the extensive cooperation between the German foreign intelligence service and the National Security Agency, including spying on other European governments. At the same time, emails leaked to the news media have revealed that a promised “no spy” agreement, under negotiation since the revelation in 2013 of N.S.A. surveillance on German government officials, was nowhere close to completion, contrary to explicit claims by the office of Angela Merkel, the chancellor.

These revelations have fueled a bitter debate in the Bundestag, with distinctly anti-American overtones. Yasmin Fahimi, the secretary general of the left-of-center Social Democratic Party, told an interviewer that a German chancellor should not be “subservient” in dealing with the United States. “We should not render ourselves vassals to the United States and ignore the rights of the Bundestag.”

Such statements are an attempt to gain sympathies in a certain spectrum of the political left. But there is more to the anti-Americanism in the current spying affair. It is a symptom of the great delusion of German security policy in the post-9/11 era, a delusion maintained by both Ms. Merkel’s right-of-center Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats: For at least a decade, while all German governments have publicly upheld a more or less critical attitude toward American security policy, Germany has secretly cooperated with it — and has privately supported much of what it has publicly condemned.

Spying on friends is a poignant example. In 2013, when news broke that Ms. Merkel’s cellphone had been tapped by the N.S.A., the chancellor reacted indignantly. “Spying amongst friends — that’s a no-go,” she said that October, and seemed to promise that Germany would never spy on its allies.

And yet, as the leaked documents and a Bundestag investigation have shown, her public indignation hid an inconvenient truth: that the German foreign intelligence service, known by its German acronym B.N.D., has helped the N.S.A. spy in Europe, in part unwittingly, but also knowingly. In fact, a 2002 memorandum of agreement founding the American-German cooperation explicitly allowed for the surveillance of European institutions, an interesting detail also brought to light by the Bundestag’s investigation.

It’s an awkward document, not only because it shows the depth of B.N.D. cooperation, but also because when it was signed, in 2002, the head of the chancellor’s office, and thus the intelligence service, was the Social Democratic politician Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now the foreign minister.

The hypocrisy in dealing with the spying affair is not just embarrassing; it has been an effective means to avoid change. It is telling to compare where Germany and the United States stand, two years after Edward J. Snowden’s leaks set off a debate about security and civil liberties, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Just a few days after Mr. Snowden released his first documents, President Obama stepped up and defended America’s surveillance programs. It was impossible to have “100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. But as the different sides in the argument have faced off in the American media and in Congress over the last two years, President Obama has shifted his position, becoming more open to reform. Things may not be where civil libertarians would like them, but with the USA Freedom Act now law, a new balance of government practice and democratic values has been struck.

In contrast, in Germany, which is ostensibly anti-surveillance, the prospects for a similar reform, one that would adapt the legal basis of the intelligence agencies to the digital age, are vague at best. Ms. Merkel is clearly willing to cooperate with the N.S.A., but she has managed to avoid entering the debate, on either side. Her administration has managed to portray itself as the ingénue. “The Internet is new to us all” was one of her first statements in reaction to the 2013 leaks.

Meanwhile, on June 1, a few weeks into the latest B.N.D. scandal, Ms. Merkel opened a “citizen dialogue” on “the good life.” Sitting with 60 Germans chosen to represent different age and income groups, she said, “I want to know what is important to you, what your burdens are.” Their responses covered everyday things, like pensions or the decline in grocery shops in rural areas.

These worries are serious, but petty, especially in light of the nondialogue on surveillance. Discussing “the good life,” while at the same time suffocating the public debate on Germany’s security policy, is yet another variant of Angela Merkel’s paternalistic way of governing. You guys take care of your jobs and kids, goes her message. Let me take care of the rest. But democracy is about the painful questions, too.

It is true that the B.N.D. and the N.S.A. are different beasts, and that a program like the N.S.A.’s bulk phone-data collection has never existed in Germany. But in managing to avoid debate, Ms. Merkel has ensured that Germany has not faced some painful questions. Should the B.N.D. be allowed to ignore the civil liberties that Germans enjoy at home when acting abroad? How much do we want to spend on our intelligence agencies — or are we willing to accept the price that comes with depending on powerful partners like the N.S.A.?

If Germany wants to play the spy game by its own rules and not be a lackey of the N.S.A., it must strengthen its agencies with a lot of money. The German population would most likely support this. Indeed, for all the concern about American snooping, hardly any political figure in Germany questions the B.N.D.’s right to exist or the need for telecommunications surveillance.

If strengthening the agencies comes with strengthening the oversight of the Parliament, Germans are likely to approve. But to really find out, Ms. Merkel must have the guts to actually start talking about it.

Anna Sauerbrey, an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, is a contributing opinion writer.

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