US-German spying row getting worse

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Relations between the United States and Germany sank to new depths on Wednesday as accusations emerged that a second German might have been slipping secrets to Washington.

The charge rubbed salt into wounds first opened by revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone — a practice President Obama has renounced.

On Thursday morning, Merkel expelled the top American intelligence official from her country, requesting the official leave the U.S. embassy.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the expulsion came “in light of the ongoing investigation” into the suspected spies as well as months of “unsolved questions on the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies in Germany,” which the German Parliament has begun to investigate.

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Despite the retaliatory step, experts said the new snooping accusations hardly came as a surprise, because world powers have long used every tool at their disposal to gather intelligence.

“The countries with intelligence communities spy on everybody,” said Jonathan Laurence, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and political science professor at Boston College. “Everyone spies on everyone. That includes your friends.”

While the new spying controversy creates headaches for diplomats and top government officials, it also provides a rare window into the network of surveillance operatives stationed all over the world.

“They just Hoover up vast quantities of information all over the place,” said Thomas Berger, an international relations professor at Boston University.

For analysts trying to connect the dots between possible threats, Berger said, any little of bit of information helps. 

“If you’re going to find the needle in the haystack, you want to go through as much hay as possible,” Berger said. 

For countries such as the United States and Germany, spying is a national security imperative, experts noted.

Peering through back channels that they hope will never be revealed, countries gather information about possible terror threats, troop movements and other actions. Foreign governments can also track locals in ways that host countries are banned from doing by law.

Still, the alleged snooping by the U.S. has unquestionably added friction to its relationship with Germany.

Merkel has said reports that a German agent was handing information to the CIA, if true, would be a “clear contradiction” of trust between the two nations.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier added that the U.S.’s involvement in spying would make it “impossible for the political community to simply return to business as usual.”

U.S. Ambassador John Emerson has reportedly met with German officials multiple times in recent days to discuss the charges, and could be back for additional tongue-lashings if more revelations emerge.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest would not comment on the newest allegations on Wednesday, instead praising the historical ties between the U.S. and Germany. 

The spying controversy is delicate for the White House due to the earlier controversy over Merkel’s cellphone surveillance.

“The Germans were just getting over the Snowden stuff,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who said he has been in close touch with German politicians in recent days. “The way Germans think about America is changing and stuff like this just piles on.”

When she visited Washington earlier this year, the chancellor made clear that the eavesdropping on her would continue to be a sore spot between the two nations, despite efforts from the White House to reform the NSA’s operations.

Other European countries and Brazil have also expressed umbrage at the NSA revelations, saying they have caused them to lose faith in American companies and grow distrustful of U.S. officials. But the outrage has been particularly fierce in Germany, where some residents lived for decades under a police state.

Attempts by the U.S. to balance security and privacy get “lost in translation” with Germany, Laurence said.

“That’s because they have too many memories about surveillance states and moles” sneaking across the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. 

The German government has repeatedly pushed the administration for some kind of bilateral “no-spy” deal, though the U.S. and former officials has rejected that option.

“The United States could never enter into a ‘no-spy’ agreement with any country — not you, not Britain, not Canada,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the German outlet Der Spiegel this week. “But that doesn’t mean that within the intelligence and security institutions within our two countries, we shouldn’t have a much clearer idea of what is appropriate and what should not be done.”

The U.S. does have an intelligence sharing agreement with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, however, as part of the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance. But those countries all share the same language, a similar culture and a history stretching back through the 20th Century, unlike with Germany.

Other close American allies aren’t included in that list, experts noted, such as Israel.

The new revelations could complicate negotiations with Germany over a proposed transatlantic trade deal, as well as cooperation on foreign policy matters such as the Russian intervention in Ukraine. But ultimately, much of the business between the two countries is too important to be affected by the spying imbroglio.

The White House has already pledged to stop snooping on the communications of top foreign leaders and has proposed extending privacy protections to foreigners. New revelations could lead to more cooperation on that front, which, over the long term, could bring the countries closer.

“It’s a serious issue and I think it’s one which we need to address and perhaps we could even use, as a positive note, as a stimulus for some useful reconsiderations about all the kind of things we can and should do in the realm of intelligence-gathering,” Berger said. 

— This story was updated at 10:28 a.m.