WASHINGTON – The White House has erected a wall of silence about being called out for spying on one of America’s closest allies. That reflects the embarrassment over the public spat with Germany and anger with Berlin for telling the world about U.S. intelligence programs.
The strain in U.S.-German relations grew dramatically last week when Berlin expelled the CIA station chief in reaction to news that two Germans, one in the intelligence organization and another in the military, were spying for Washington.
The White House on Friday implicitly criticized Germany for making the spying allegations public but gave no explanation for the intelligence activity.
“Allies with sophisticated intelligence agencies like the United States and Germany understand with some degree of detail exactly what those intelligence relationships and activities entail,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “Any differences that we have are most effectively resolved through established private channels, not through the media. These private channels include regular discussions between intelligence officials, diplomatic officials and national security officials from those two countries.
“So pursuing that dialogue through those channels is exactly what we’re doing, and it’s why I’m not in the position to speak with all of you about reports of our purported intelligence activities.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded over the weekend, telling ZDF German television that she still wants to work with the Americans on intelligence matters.
“But we are no longer living in the Cold War, when everyone probably mistrusted everyone else; we face completely different threats today, asymmetric threats,” Merkel said. “And when I think of fighting terrorism, of what is going on now with ISIS (Sunni Muslim extremists fighting) in Iraq, of Afghanistan and many other things, we should concentrate on the important things.”
Students of the U.S.-German relationship suggest the most recent revelations might have been papered over were it not for Merkel’s frustration with the Obama administration’s failure to give her a satisfactory explanation about news last year that the U.S. National Security Agency had been eavesdropping on her cell phone and intercepting Internet traffic in Germany. That embarrassing leak came from Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, who has disclosed explosive inside information on the scope of American intelligence operations at home and abroad.
“I don’t think the German government would have been shocked that the United States was conducting this more traditional spying (the two new spy cases) in Germany,” said Jordan Tama, professor of international relations at American University. “The German government wanted to take a stand on this (by expelling the CIA station chief) then put the issue behind them quickly.” Tama served as counterterrorism policy adviser to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign
Not so, said Stephen Szabo of the German Marshall Fund. With the CIA station chief expelled, things may go quiet for a while, but the tight U.S.-German alliance has suffered permanent damage. “They keep thinking it will blow over. But it won’t,” he said.
“It’s a disaster for American foreign policy, and I don’t think the German-U.S. relationship will ever be the same again no matter what they do at this point,” Szabo said. “It’s going to be a lot more like the relationship with the French than it has been with the Germans. Much more realistic, business-like.”
And he agrees with analysts in Germany who say Merkel has become disillusioned with Obama and think he has abandoned a close ally.
“What the Europeans and Germans think is Obama doesn’t care enough about Europe,” Szabo said. “He’s saying it’s not that important, Europeans are not that big a player for us.”
That cuts especially deep in Germany, where there was great enthusiasm for Obama as he replaced former President George W. Bush, whose defense secretary dismissed major European powers like Germany as “old Europe” as he tried to make light of German reluctance to join in the Iraq war.
Republicans in Congress who would normally pile on an issue that was causing Obama so much embarrassment aren’t because they are loathe to criticize the U.S. intelligence establishment, said Tama. “And,” he said, “it’s possible the intelligence agencies were doing this without political leaders instructing them to do so.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met briefly in Vienna over the weekend with Secretary of State John Kerry, but there were no reports of progress on either side.