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US spying: A dialog

Richard Walker, WashingtonJuly 14, 2014

The US-German relationship is on the rocks. All the signs are there: prying, distrust, even sarcasm in some of the public comment. DW's Richard Walker imagines a conversation between the two - behind closed doors.

Image: imago

Germany: I'm angry and disappointed.

America: We know you are. In fact the whole world knows you are - you've been very public in your outrage.

Germany: We had little choice: you haven't been taking our concerns seriously.

America: Do you realize how many crises we are dealing with? Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and major problems on our southern border.

Germany: That's our point! Why are you wasting your efforts spying on us when we need to be working together on the real problems facing the world?

America: But you know perfectly well that intelligence isn't just about crises. It's our job to know as much as we can about everyone we do business with.

Germany: As we unfortunately found out - that includes even Angela Merkel. Listening in on her mobile phone was crossing a line.

America: We've said we won't do that any more.

Germany: You mean Barack Obama said it wouldn't happen during his presidency. After that, who knows?

America: You know we can't make promises that last forever. Who knows what the world will look like in the future?

Germany: So you reserve the right to spy on a German chancellor again in the future?

America: That's not the point. Intelligence is about understanding the whole world better. Not just the bad guys.

Germany: We hold ourselves to a higher standard. We don't do this to you.

America: Maybe you should!

Germany: We should get down and dirty because everyone's at it? Following that logic, we wouldn't bother fighting climate change because other countries take the problem less seriously. That wouldn't be responsible.

America: Barack Obama is being responsible. He does have concerns about some of the intelligence services' activities. Like getting too many American citizens caught up unnecessarily in electronic surveillance. There's a review underway about that.

Germany: Our concerns haven't been getting the same level of attention.

America: Naturally our primary responsibility is to our own citizens.

Germany: But you don't operate in a vacuum. Your actions have consequences. You cannot deny that your spying on Germany is pushing us apart - and damaging your reputation among our people.

America: But where do you draw the line? The world needs our leadership. We have to have the freedom to act.

Germany: But does that mean carte blanche? There's a sense that your vast intelligence services are out of control - monsters with a life of their own, beyond effective oversight and accountability.

America: But you're one of the biggest beneficiaries - not just of our intelligence services, but of our whole security umbrella. Who protected you during the Cold War? Who still pays the bills in NATO?

Germany: The contributions we have made in places like Afghanistan have been greatly underestimated. And we've been very clear recently that we're ready to take on more responsibility on the international stage. President Gauck and Defense Minister von der Leyen have been making that case forcefully.

America: Which is a good thing. But why not take the similar approach to intelligence?

Germany: Our intelligence services are doing some very good work. And they share most of their pickings with you.

America: Which we appreciate.

Germany: What they don't do is spy on you.

America: We’re back where we started.