Coming on a Year After the Snowden Revelations, the Germans Are Still Less Than Satisfied with the U.S.

The Germans, bless their thoroughness, are still not satisfied with the U.S. following the Snowden revelations about Americans spying on allies, and in particular the tapping of Angela Merkel's cellphone since 2002, well before she became Chancellor.

Ms. Merkel continued to voice her disappointment with the U.S., albeit in a muted way, during a visit to Washington on May 5. According to the New York Times, while President Obama, in their joint appearance, described her as "one of my closest friends on the world stage," she came up short, saying that there were still difficulties to be overcome in the aftermath of the spying disclosures, and that it was too soon to return to "business as usual."

We have been told that the reason behind the intense German disappointment with the U.S. is the memory of the Nazi, and later the Stasi (East German) intrusions into the private lives of German citizens. For an ally such as the U.S., to engage in such intrusions is simply "unacceptable," in the opinion of Ms. Merkel.

Unlike the French, the Germans sent a political-level delegation to Washington to discuss the Snowden revelations. It was headed by National Security adviser, Christoph Heusgen, who went toe-to-toe in discussions with his American counterpart, Susan Rice. President Obama pledged that Ms. Merkel's phone would not be tapped anymore but did not go further. Unsatisfied, the Germans called off the talks.

What the Germans came looking for in their visit was a no-spy agreement with the U.S., and indications are that they thought this was to be on the agenda for discussion. Where did they get the idea for this? It may have come from the abortive no-spy agreement with France in 2011 (See my article on this in the French journal Commentaire, Spring 2011). This was the brainchild of the then Director of National Intelligence, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, who was ultimately prohibited by the White House from making the agreement with the French, and this affair apparently contributed to Blair's early departure from the job. Blair had intended to follow the agreement with France with a similar one with Germany. The Germans may have gotten word of this at the time.

In his joint appearance with Ms. Merkel on May 5, President Obama asserted that, "We do not have a blanket no-spy agreement with any country." This may be strictly speaking true. Note that the British-U.S. Communications Intelligence Agreement of March 5, 1946, which became the basis for the so-called "five eyes" system (the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) deals only with the sharing of signals intelligence and says nothing about an agreement not to spy on each other.

Nevertheless there appears to be an informal or tacit agreement among the above anglo-saxon countries not to spy on each other. In 1984, when I was on a visit to London I had the more than distinct impression that unilateral intelligence operations in Britain were off the table.