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Transatlantic rift

Michael KniggeJuly 7, 2014

The alleged spying of a German intelligence employee for the US - if confirmed – wreaks havoc with the already strained US-German relations. But the new scandal also contains a clear message from Washington for Berlin.

Angela Merkel und Barack Obama 2.5.2014
Image: Getty Images

Let's get one thing straight right away. Yes, spy agencies do spy. That is a truism. As is the fact, that their work, often, if not always, involves operations under shady circumstances and dealing with dubious characters. That is the nature of that business and to get riled up by that fact alone one must be either ignorant or starry-eyed.

Having said all that, the latest spying scandal - if confirmed - has a new quality and should give German politicians and citizens pause for thought.


Not because US intelligence services ran a double agent inside its German partner service BND. Of course they do. Spy agencies recruit moles in each others services to siphon off as much information as they can get. That is to be expected and ever since the Snowden disclosures we should not be surprised that even ‘friendly' nations spy on each other.

Deutsche Welle Michael Knigge
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

No isolated case

What makes the new incident so pernicious for the much-heralded transatlantic partnership is the context in which it occurred. This spy scandal is not an isolated case. To the contrary, it is only the most recent example of a whole slew of revelations that show to what lengths US services go to in order to spy on millions of Germans from the chancellor over leading politicians down to ordinary citizens.

Making matters worse, the US mole inside the BND was apparently operational this year, perhaps even until a few weeks ago. That would mean that at the same time that Washington and Berlin were politically trying to get the transatlantic ties back in order after the fallout from the NSA scandal, US spy services ran a mole inside its German partner organization. It makes a mockery of the recently started efforts by Germans and Americans to reach a common understanding on privacy and security issues via the so-called cyber dialogue.

Deepen the gulf

The new spying scandal reveals an utter lack of American sensitivity of German sentiment and will only deepen the transatlantic rift. To continue US spying activities inside the BND as if nothing had happened in the past year is not just brazen. It's like sending in the wrecking ball while workers are supposedly trying to repair the badly damaged transatlantic house.

For Berlin, this latest incident contains a clear message. Washington - notwithstanding some public diplomacy efforts to soften the blow - is unwilling to significantly change its foreign intelligence operations, not for Germany or any other country for that matter. The writing was already on the wall when the no-spy agreement failed. Now it's high time for Berlin to heed the message and act accordingly: Germany must become more independent from US intelligence and close its intelligence blind spot regarding so-called friendly nations.