NSA, Germany and Handygate: A Reality Check

Right now Germany is in the midst of a full-fledged political storm, dubbed Handygate in the media, over alleged espionage by the National Security Agency against the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone is said to have been intercepted by NSA for years. Given German sensitivities about privacy that linger from both the Nazi and Communist periods, as well as the well known national proclivity towards introspection – Nabelschau (navel-gazing) being a core German competency – the resulting scandal is verging on the obsessional among some Germans.

All this is of course being fanned by the media, especially the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has a long-standing reputation for sensationalism about espionage, particularly American; it has also been a regular conduit for stolen NSA materials from the defector Edward Snowden. What makes this interesting is that one need not be a seasoned counterintelligence hand to note that some of the newest materials could not have come from Snowden; a bigger game is now afoot, and it’s centered on Germany (where, let it be noted, key members of the Wikileaks apparat Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras reside).

There are oddities abounding in this case. In the first place, due to the laws drawn up by the Federal Republic of Germany at its late 1940s founding, the alleged NSA activities that have caused this firestorm may actually be legal. Moreover, a great deal of what’s going on now is political theater which Chancellor Merkel has to be witting of at some level. If she’s not, one must question her basic fitness for dealing with any international affairs, though her longtime use of a fundamentally insecure cellphone to conduct government business boggles the mind of any intelligence veteran.

The heads of Germany’s intelligence services are now headed to Washington, DC, for meetings with the White House and NSA to smooth over the scandal. At bottom, Germany (like France), seeks not to shut down NSA espionage, rather to get closer to it. Berlin has long been jealous of London and the other Anglosphere members of the so-called Five Eyes community, the SIGINT alliance born in the Second World War which, to this day, constitutes the most successful international intelligence partnership in world history. Perhaps because they were on the wrong side when that alliance was created in the days of the ULTRA secret, German intelligence agencies have always wanted into the club and its privileged inner circle. Although Germany enjoys a tight spy relationship with the United States (and Britain too), Berlin knows its place, and it would like an upgrade.

Abandoning the US-German intelligence partnership is simply not an option, no matter what politicians may say, and regardless of how much hysteria is created by the media. The reasons for this are well known to intelligence insiders, and are elaborated in a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. Its title, “Technically Backward and Helpless,” is painfully accurate. There can be no doubt that Germany’s intelligence and security services, preeminently the Federal Intelligence Service (BND, Germany’s CIA plus NSA equivalent) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, equivalent to Britain’s Security Service), are indeed deeply dependent on American partners, and have been since the day of their creation.

The depths of that dependency are laid bare in Die Welt‘s account. Germany’s “helpless dependence” on the U.S. Intelligence Community is not new but it entered a complicated phase after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States which, lest we forget, were staged mostly out of Hamburg, a fact which the Die Welt piece notes: “The Americans did not want to rely exclusively on us after September 11th. That is understandable,” explained a German intelligence official.  Thus was born increased attention to Germany among U.S. spy agencies.

Additionally, Germany’s intelligence agencies are underfunded and lack the technical capabilities of other leading Western countries; in espionage, Germany has chosen to punch below its economic and political weight, and now bears the consequences, namely deep dependency on foreign partners such as NSA and CIA. As I recently reported, the BND head Gerhard Schindler recently called for more reliance on foreign partners, not less, and here he was simply reflecting budgetary and political realities in Germany, where there is scant appetite for more investment in security.

Even in domestic intelligence matters Germany is heavily dependent on American help, especially from NSA, whose SIGINT has been provided to the Germans in many cases, leading to the disruption of a number of planned terrorist attacks in Germany since 2001.  “Without information from the Americans, there would have been successful terrorist attacks in Germany in the past years,” explained a BfV official, truthfully.

For these reasons it’s unlikely that any big changes to German intelligence or its relationship to NSA and CIA will happen soon. Although the current political brouhaha is serious, even though some of the hand-wringing is obviously staged by politicos who know better, this, too, shall pass, unless Germany wants to spend significantly more money on its own security and intelligence. And, as yet, there is no sign of that.

Germany’s condition reflects the reality that too many European countries have underinvested in their own defense and security since the end of the Cold War, and are therefore deeply dependent on the United States for assistance. I would like the Germans and other European countries to take more responsibility for their own security and fund their militaries and intelligence agencies at higher levels.  They would be better partners then too. But I’m not optimistic on that front. Protesting, after all, is easier than reforming bureaucracies or finding more money in lean budgetary times.


15 comments on “NSA, Germany and Handygate: A Reality Check”
  1. Terrific stuff !

    Forwarding to others as we “speak” .

  2. God's Herald Angels says:

    What you and your parents and your fellow apparat (as you put it) do and have done cannot withstand public scrutiny. It is done in shadow and darkness.

    I call on you now to repent your evil, wicked ways and return to the Light.

    What you do is immoral and ungodly, your “echo chamber” self-rationalizations notwithstanding.


    1. 20committee says:

      Wow, someone forgot his thorazine today ….

  3. kaykuri says:

    I wonder if you could elaborate on the question of Snowden being the source for this revelation. Maybe I’m missing something, but I found the linked article very weak on that score.

    Conflicting source reports and hints from members of German Parliament? Okay, got it. But inconclusive.

    It’s really the 3rd- and 2nd-to last paragraphs of the McClatchy article that I don’t get. This article implies that there is something fishy about the fact that Snowden did a runner weeks before Obama visited Berlin, but it doesn’t say why. Are the documents dated after Snowden split? Do they detail events of Obama’s visit?

    Without that crucial detail, this seems exceptionally weak. From this mildly informed layman’s perspective what I think I know is this:
    1) we’ve been spying on Merkel since before she became Chancellor in 2005.
    2) it’s pretty safe to guarantee a program of that nature produced copious documents.
    3) Snowden seems to have had access to much more than he had any business to.
    4) the journalists he allegedly handed his stuff to have been dropping revelations in a piecemeal fashion over time.
    Therefore it seems perfectly plausible to me that Snowden could be the source.


    1. 20committee says:

      It is weak but there is simply no way Snowden is aware of an (alleged) conversation between POTUS and DIRNSA in 2010 about Merkel. This is very dubious, IMO.

  4. don draper says:

    “Germany’s condition reflects the reality that too many European countries have underinvested in their own defense and security since the end of the Cold War.”
    It didn’t start since the end of the Cold War; the Germans Intelligence is heavily dependent on American help since the 1950’s. And there are people who wants this German condition!

  5. Uwe Weber says:

    Regarding Merkel: Her father was a lutheran pastor who moved from West-Germany to the “GDR” to help the church there. While every pastor was under Stasi’s surveillance his move from the west will have brought him their special attention. These were the circumstances under which Merkel grew up.
    And she managed to get an university degree and make a career in physics. If there is one politician here, who knows that someone is always watching ( or listening ) it’s her.

    1. 20committee says:

      Komplett verstanden.

      1. Uwe Weber says:

        Irgendwie erscheint mir bei der Angelegenheit der zeitliche Ablauf merkwürdig.
        Alle, die ein Interesse daran haben, die deutsch-amerikanischen Beziehungen zu belasten und Merkel zu beschädigen, hätten das doch besser vor der Wahl gemacht. Warum also jetzt?

  6. Sven says:

    At the moment Angela Merkel and Germany’s political elite are negotiating a new coalition agreement, and horse trading about who will sit where in government, thereby significantly deciding how Germany will pay of not pay for the next Euro bailouts, an extremely emotional topic in Germany (enough to end the FDP as a parliamentary party after 60+ years after many voters defected to the AfD.)

    Bismarck famously observed that laws are like sausages in that one ought not look too closely his they’re made; for the coalition parties, the more scrutiny they face, the more unpopular they become, as all the euro financial news is bad.

    It caught my eye that during this period of negotiations Germany’s public discourse has been occupied by several highly emotional and dare I say entertaining scandals; first the bishop of bling, then the merkelphone. Both scandals reached full entertainment value through leaks from politicians, and could have broken earlier or later.

    Is it absurd to wonder if they are not deliberately fomented diversions from the political reporting that would benefit Germany’s voters if not politicians?

    1. 20committee says:

      Not absurd in the slightest ….

  7. Dan says:

    “the BND head Gerhard Schindler recently called for more reliance on foreign partners, not less, and here he was simply reflecting budgetary and political realities in Germany, where there is scant appetite for more investment in security.”

    This is the sort of thing I wish I could remember when someone hauls out the old “We should pull our troops out of all those other countries where they don’t belong anyway. Why are we spending so much money over there?” argument. Unfortunately, almost any response to that can be reframed in terms of American imperialism or protectionism. I’m afraid that there are some people who simply cannot be reasoned with.

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