Politics & Government

NSA eavesdropping is still roiling relations with Germany

Juergen Hardt’s position in the German government, coordinator of trans-Atlantic cooperation, once was considered a major honor – the official liaison to the United States, arguably Germany’s closest ally.

But since the revelation that the United States’ National Security Agency eavesdropped for years on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, U.S.-German relations have been a twisting, stomach-churning roller coaster ride so wild that many Germans wonder whether it’s possible to get off. The pro-America crowd, meanwhile, can only warn that despite the nausea, it’s not safe to leave a ride in motion.

“We have gone through challenging times in the bilateral relationship in the past,” Hardt said in an interview. “As in every relationship, there have been ups and downs. Right now, we are going through challenging times when it comes to public perception.”

The relationship between Germany and the United States, two of the world’s four largest economies, is no small matter. The United States relies on Europe as a strategic and trading partner, and Germany is the tail that wags the European Union. As the world tilts toward Asia, economists and politicians think that perhaps the best way to extend the American Century and Europe’s global influence is through good relations, from shared security through open trade.

But the mere fact that Hardt is in this role today says something about the state of affairs. In the past, the job has been trusted primarily to political senior figures. But Hardt joined the Parliament only in 2009, and before his appointment as liaison to North America he wasn’t widely considered to be among Germany’s political elite. His previous career as spokesman for a family-owned door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales company didn’t make national headlines, and he’d never been noted for taking the lead on trans-Atlantic issues.

The previous holders of the post were well-known: Hardt’s immediate successor was Philipp Missfelder, a foreign policy star in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. It wasn’t long ago that former Hamburg Mayor Hans-Ulrich Klose, a onetime vice president of the Parliament, had held the position.

Since then, the job has lost much of its sheen. Hardt doesn’t shy away from talking about why.

“Our nations share historic and long-standing close relations. We share bonds of friendships and personal connections between our people,” he said. “This solid basis is often overshadowed these days for one simple reason: NSA surveillance. The problem is that this is to a certain degree a matter of two different cultures and experiences. What is being accepted in the United States is not acceptable here.”

Hardt notes that Germans are not naive about the ways of the modern spy world. There will be surveillance.

“We do not and we cannot expect a complete change of American security policy,” he said. “But we do expect our citizens to be treated with the same respect U.S. law grants to its citizens. And we do expect that our national laws will be honored.”

Germans were shocked by some areas of the U.S. spy program against his country, he said. And he reiterated a point made by Merkel: “In that regard, Germany needs some clear commitments.”

What, specifically? Nonspecific electronic spying? “No go.” Tapping the chancellor’s cellphone? “Absolutely no go.” Hiring spies in the German intelligence services? “No go.”

Beyond that, it’s become clear in Germany that part of the problem is the lack of transparency in the online world about where data are stored. It’s understood that a German driver on an Italian highway is subject to Italian, not German, speed limits. But that driver knows he’s on Italian roads. German Internet users on international Web services have as much of a right to know where their data are stored, Hardt said. They should know that the United States isn’t permitted to spy on data stored in Germany, or Europe.

But that’s only the first step in an overdue discussion, he said.

The problem the two nations have in starting this discussion is that it wasn’t so long ago that relations were very, very good.

Germans say that had the United States asked to know what was going on in the parliamentary committee that’s investigating NSA spying, Germany would have provided the information. Instead, the United States decided to pay a low-level committee worker when he offered information for cash. Just as it agreed to create another U.S. mole, in the German military, when approached by a low-level worker there.

“Alerting us to this would have been a positive,” Hardt said.

Instead, German officials discovered the parliamentary leak when German counterintelligence intercepted an email the man sent to Russian officials. The Americans had already bought the information he was selling; giving Germany a heads up that there was someone selling parliamentary secrets – instead of paying for the secrets themselves – might have stanched a leak before it did harm.

“Our government is these days often forced to explain to our own people why the United States continues to be such an important and close partner and why we continue to work with the United States in so many different areas,” Hardt said. “The trust that we lost in the past year between our nations must be rebuilt.”

That distrust has made life very difficult for the leadership in Berlin. In the Ukrainian crisis, from Russia’s seizure of Crimea to the Russian incursion into southeastern Ukraine, Germany stands with the United States. In dealing with the self-proclaimed Islamic State – an issue that deeply affects Germany, as more than 400 Germans have joined the fighting in that region – Germany stands with the United States. Again and again, on issue after issue, Hardt said Germany stood by the United States. Or, at least, he noted, Germany wants to stand with the United States.

“Who are our friends in the world? Our closest allies are in Europe and the United States,” he said. “Most Germans grew up knowing this. But now we have to make an extra effort to make this case. Nobody can explain something that is simply regarded as being illegal here. And the anti-American circles, which always existed here in small numbers, are seizing the opportunity to set a new agenda.”