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Germany's reaction

Ben KnightJuly 7, 2014

Just as with last year's Merkel cellphone affair, German politicians have expressed outrage and pledged action at the arrest of an alleged CIA collaborator in their intel agency. But they are unlikely to follow through.

An eye ringed with the NSA symbol peers out from an American flag
Image: imago

There is an irony to the way the German intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), caught the analyst who was selling secrets to the US - and it's part of Germany's problem: they only discovered the 31-year-old because he was trying to sell documents to Russia.

Having tracked him down with the help of a fake Russian email address, the BND found they'd actually caught someone who had a special application on his home computer with which he communicated with the CIA.

The BND's "double agent" scandal (the term is a slight misnomer in this case, since the man in question was a data analyst rather than a spy) has picked off a scab on a sore that had barely healed after the saga of Angela Merkel's phone last year. "Enough is enough!" declared President Joachim Gauck on German TV channel ZDF on Saturday (05.07.2014). If the allegations turn out to be true, the president said, this would be "playing games with friendship, with a close alliance."

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere wants to see concrete steps takenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere - responsible for domestic surveillance - didn't waste much time with rhetoric, saying he wants action. Germany's leading tabloid "Bild" claimed on Monday (07.07.2014) that it had seen an internal government paper in which the minister expressed the view that from now on, the BND would have to take a "360-degree view" in its surveillance. Germany must plan "countermeasures" - in other words, spy on the friendly spies on its own soil, as well as the unfriendly ones.

What countermeasures?

But what should the German government do about this? Or what can it do? Or what does it even want to do?

"Obviously, this is something that requires a political response in Berlin that goes beyond rhetorical blame on the US," said Henrik Heidenkamp, German defense policy analyst at the Royal United Services Institute. "There is certainly a demand for concrete action."

If the investigation backs up the initial claims, Heidenkamp says Monday's de Maizière statement offers a clue to how Germany will respond. "He is referring to the domestic intelligence picture," he told DW. "Should they get clearance by the Chancellery - Angela Merkel - they'll not only look at the usual suspects, Russia and China, but will basically extend their intelligence gathering to countries like the United States."

An eye is pictured between German and American national symbols
Just who is spying on whom?Image: imago

"So far, they have not done so - with regard to the United States, France, UK," says Heidenkamp. "So, you can see the tide is changing there."

Really so surprised?

But even if, as this suggests, Germany may have been a little naïve up until now, does that mean the BND, last week described as the "vermiform appendix to the NSA" by a former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake, will repay the attention? Will Germany start looking for agents within the ranks of the CIA in the US?

Heidenkamp doesn't think so. "That would be exactly the behavior we criticize the US for," he said. "Arguably, that would be beyond what German intelligence agencies are capable of. And what would be the benefit of spying within US territory anyway?"

"Even if you only do electronic surveillance of US organizations within Germany, that obviously takes resources away from surveillance of the usual suspects," he added. "Not only is this something that hurts the partnership, it also hurts the interests."

Thomas Drake
Thomas Drake described the BND as an appendix to the NSAImage: Getty Images

Silvia Petig, associate fellow for transatlantic relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), is also skeptical about how taken aback Merkel and her ministers really were. "Are they really surprised that the NSA does what it was made for?" she said. "The reactions only come with the big scandals. But these individual actions won't change the relationship, in my opinion."

"It's a bit like a bad novel," she told DW. "Oh, now this has to happen, too. I don't think the BND is going to start huge countermeasures. There are more urgent problems, and I think the American intelligence services profit from those more urgent problems. And I think German-American relations should be able to get over it. It would be a shame otherwise."