Germany deeply wounded at revelations US has spied on citizens

By Catherine Field

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Nearly 50 years ago, the assassination of John F. Kennedy plunged millions of Germans into grief. Never was an American President so dearly loved abroad: With his "ich bin ein Berliner" speech, Kennedy set himself as the defender of ordinary Germans against Soviet totalitarianism.

Today, many Germans have a bitter view of Barack Obama; especially those who believed he inherited Kennedy's mantle.

Revelations that, under Obama's watch, the United States has been spying massively on Germany's public and eavesdropping on its leader have inflicted deep wounds that, say analysts, may take years to heal, if at all. Other US allies, including Brazil, France, Mexico and Spain, have been similarly treated by the US National Security Agency, if NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is right.

But it is in Germany that the shock is the most genuine and deeply felt.

The scandal damages a shining reputation, derived from the 1948 airlift that saved West Berlin from starvation, from Kennedy's defiance when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and from Germany's reunification in 1990, which America endorsed over the doubts over its World War II allies.

The Orwellian tales of indiscriminate snooping also touch on Germany's own traumatic past. For more than half a century, millions of Germans lived under Hitler's Gestapo or, in the former East Germany - where German leader Angela Merkel herself grew up - under the Stasi secret police.

One result of this is Germany has the toughest laws in Europe on intercepting communications. And it is the least tolerant of arguments that surveillance is justified "because everyone does it" or that it is needed for security reasons.

According to one disclosure, the NSA tapped half a billion emails, phone calls or text messages in Germany in a typical month.

"A lot of damage has been done," said Franziska Keller, a member of the European Parliament with Germany's Greens Party.

"Right now, there is really a sort of outrage."

"This really is a problem for German-American relations," said Markus Kaim, an expert on transatlantic security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

"It alienates people who haven't been anti-American, it alienates Germany people who are not sceptical towards the United States."

Germany is sending the heads of its foreign and domestic intelligence agencies to Washington, as well as a parliamentary delegation, to demand an explanation.

The lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag, will hold a special debate on November 18.

This is a demand initially formulated by leftist opposition MPs but now backed by Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who are in talks on forming the next government.

The leftists, with the Greens and the Social Democrats, also want the Bundestag to set up an investigative committee, empowered to call up witnesses including the chancellor and even Snowden, who is living in asylum in Russia. Doing so would surely incense the United States, which wants to prosecute him for leaking secrets.

"For the first time, people in the foreign policy establishment are publicly talking about a feeling that we have to retaliate," Kaim said.

"When the NSA scandal first emerged, somebody came up with a proposal to invite Edward Snowden to Berlin. At the time, it was considered total nonsense. It's not considered total nonsense any more."

Keller said, "I think it would be very important to invite him, because he is the one who brought the bulk of these documents, who created all this transparency, who showed us all the problems we are talking about now. His testimony would be really important."

She admitted the chances were remote, though. "Even so, I really hope that he will be invited and that he also is granted asylum here."

Other mooted forms of retaliation are terminating or suspending talks between the EU and the US to create the world's biggest free-trade bloc.

Commentators say such actions are unlikely, in the near term at least.

Thomas Klau at the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank believes a lot of the expressed outrage is disingenuous.

The revelations "are a shock to a lot of unsuspecting citizens, but they shouldn't be to anybody who has eyes to read and ears to hear that the Americans, particularly after 9/11, have been engaged in all-out surveillance, especially targeting foreign leaders, and in the massive surveillance of international telecommunications".

German-US relations have been through worse turbulence, notably when Germany snubbed George W. Bush's demand to join the war on Iraq in 2003, says Klau, who predicted strategic needs would soon force the two Governments back into each other's arms.

"At the end of the day, we remain crucially dependent on the US, on military terms, and as the preserver of the international order as we know it," agreed Kaim.

If on the surface, the relationship remained unchanged, it risked being gnawed away from within by suspicion if Obama failed to take action, Kaim added.

To regain trust, the Americans would have to give a "credible, transparent" account of what they had been doing, as well as provide a binding agreement - "whatever binding means" - not to spy on the German public, said Kaim.

"I am very sceptical about whether a no-spy agreement will actually help, because we can never be sure that they will actually follow this," said Keller. "That, I think, is the biggest problem. It will take years to regain trust, even if they really try."

- NZ Herald

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