"Power Women” was the title of Germany’s highest-profile talk show on the first Sunday in July. Host Günther Jauch had invited two powerful German women - Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Margot Kässmann the former head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) – and one American: Hillary Clinton, former US secretary of state.
Jauch would not have strayed from his topic had it not been revealed two days earlier that an employee of the BND, the German foreign intelligence agency, had been arrested. He is suspected of having spied for a foreign power, and, surprisingly, not for Russia but allegedly for the US.
Clinton showed a great deal of understanding for Germany’s outrage over the mole within the BND. The US was “very aware of the sensitivity of our partners.” But she said many Americans also were unaware that in Germany “friends and neighbors spied on each other just a few years ago and that in the past you could trust no one.”
It is true that Germany experienced two dictatorships in the 20th century – the totalitarian Nazi regime and authoritarian communism in East Germany. And that plays a role in Germany’s extreme sensitivity over surveillance and privacy. But when anger boils over across the political spectrum, the shadows of history are not the only explanation.
The point is: it has been too much. A year ago the former secret service agent Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) spies on millions of citizens in Germany. Then it turned out that the US secret service had bugged the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Since then, month after month new details become public about US mass snooping. In early July it became known that the American secret services continue to gather information in Germany – specifically targeting people who try to resist surveillance by encrypting their communications and, again it seems, the chancellor and her new crypto-security mobile.
Then it was revealed that the NSA was monitoring the computer of a college student because he helped Internet users protect themselves from digital monitoring.
An investigating committee of the German parliament has been trying to shed light on the damaging affair, so far to little avail. Washington has declined a request from Berlin for a mutual no-spy agreement.
Revelations of yet another US double agent, this time at the defense ministry proved to be the final straw. On July 10, the German government asked the CIA resident at the American embassy in Berlin to leave the country.
The unprecedented step reflects the overwhelmingly negative reaction across the political spectrum to US surveillance activities in Germany:
• “If the new spying accusations turn out to be true, then the time may have finally come to say ‘enough’,” commented German President Joachim Gauck.
• Chancellor Merkel declared that “if the allegations are true, it would be for me a clear contradiction of what I consider to be trusting cooperation between agencies and partners.”
• Both Foreign Minister Frank-Water Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democratic Party, and the conservative Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière have demanded an explanation from Washington. De Maiziére is apparently considering extending German counter-intelligence activities to include the US and other allied nations, according to a report in the mass circulation Bild tabloid.
• On July 4, Germany’s foreign minister summoned the US ambassador for urgent consultations.
• The conservative CSU politician Hans-Peter Uhl called the US a “digital occupation power”.
• The opposition Greens and the Left Party agree with Defense Minister von der Leyen of the CDU, who told Hillary Clinton on Jauch’s talk show: “Rein in your intelligence services, because you don’t spy on friends, you have to treat them respectfully.”
• Calls are mounting to upgrade German and European anti-spy software. Berlin is reorganizing its information and communication systems to provide an increased level of security.
The global economic crisis, civil wars in Africa, the Middle East and in the former Soviet sphere show that the allies seem to be getting their priorities wrong. Particularly in view of the very concrete threat of jihadist terrorism it appears more appropriate for the US, Germany and the EU to join forces against crime than waste their energy snooping on each other.
It was mainly the United States who brought the values of democracy and the rule of law to the Germans after World War II. While those values remain deeply anchored in the German psyche today, there is a growing feeling in the country that the United States is abandoning its own principles.
Maybe the time has come to discuss a no-spy agreement after all.