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article imageOp-Ed: U.S. German spy scandal — less obvious problems for NSA

By Paul Wallis     Jul 10, 2014 in World
Berlin - The recent finding of two U.S. agents in Germany has set off a true catfight, but one which is raging beneath the surface in reality. Germany found a double agent in its ranks, then identified a US operative in Germany.
Sydney Morning Herald describes the fallout so far. A top US intelligence officer has been expelled, and the diplomatic damage is significant:
Germany demanded the departure from the country of the top spy at the US Embassy in Berlin on Thursday, dramatising its deepening unhappiness with reports of US intelligence operations targeting its officials.
Following accusations of two cases of US spying, government spokesman Steffen Seibert announced that "the representative of the US intelligence services at the US Embassy has been asked to leave Germany".
One German has been arrested and an investigation has been launched into another in the past two weeks on suspicions of espionage. Both are suspected of passing secrets to the United States, German news organisations have reported.Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that while the information turned over by one of the suspects appears so far to be "laughable ... the political damage is already disproportionate and serious".
There’s another issue here, which the Germans understandably aren’t addressing: the nature of the US operations. Since the Cold War, the intelligence information framework has evolved into a very different beast, with multiple foci.
A US intelligence presence in Germany is no great surprise. Germany is the crossroads between East and West, and a lot of activity, notably arms trade through Russia, organised crime, the black economy, and other issues tend to relate to issues which impact Germany. Industrial espionage is another large area of interest.
Being one of the megapowers of the EU, German policies and economic practices are also of interest to the US, both as an ally and as a competitor. That area of interest is likely to be much less hilarious to the Germans than the information obtained by an apparently klutzy operator.
Expelling intelligence officials is the diplomatic equivalent of “we are not amused.” Germany, still smarting from Snowden revelations about US phone tapping intelligence operations in Germany, and reassured by President Barack Obama that all was well, is likely to be more than un-amused. In this case, they’ve stopped short of formal expulsion, and suggested the chief of station leave.
Der Spiegel:
Initially, there had been talk of a formal expulsion of the CIA employee, who is officially accredited as the so-called chief of station and is responsible for the US intelligence service's activities in Germany. A short time later, the government backpedalled and said it had only recommended that he leave. Although it cannot be compared with a formal explusion, it remains an unfriendly gesture.
On a diplomatic level, it is no less than an earthquake and represents a measure that until Thursday would have only been implemented against pariah states like North Korea or Iran. It also underscores just how deep tensions have grown between Berlin and Washington over the spying affair.
One thing the US may not consider too laughable either:
In the most recent case, SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned, the suspect in question had worked for close to a year as a desk officer in the Defense Ministry's political department, where he worked on international security policy and had wide-ranging access to internal documents. The suspect had allegedly been under observation for months by Germany's military intelligence agency, the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD). The suspect had reportedly met conspicuously often with contact people MAD officials viewed as being associated with the US intelligence apparatus. Although the man's computers have been seized and he has been subjected to an extensive interrogation, there is not yet any concrete proof that he spied and he has since been released from detainment.
This sounds pretty awful, both as a description of an intelligence operative and as an operational reference. He was there for a year, and he was under surveillance “for months”. The issue here is that not only was this guy unable to remain covert for any significant length of time, he was mixing with a virtual known shopping list of US operatives.
The US problem, in fact, is a working dynamic with which it’s been stuck since World War 2. The US does have legitimate extra-territorial operational intelligence issues, at multiple levels. Information from one source may relate to other information from other sources, around the world. This kind of globally-sourced information may not be something the US wants to share with allies, because it’s sensitive for US interests and may reflect negatively on US associates.
The other problem is that local operations are naturally directly affected by this dynamic. Spying, in fact, may not necessarily be on Germany itself, for example, but something in Germany.
(In this case, the spying actually was on Germany’s reaction to the hacking of Merkel’s phone, so the Germans are far less than impressed with any possible excuses of this kind. A pretty dumb move, given that the US Embassy would have to work with the official response and NSA with the behind the scenes response in any case, regardless of information obtained.)
US vs allied intelligence- A mess which needs cleaning up
The problem for US allies is that while everyone knows and understands the need for the US to manage its own very complex intelligence priorities in its own interests, incidents of various kinds can be quite troubling for them. These issues can also be quite offensive and highly annoying, often making foreign intelligence look pretty bad.
It frequently mystifies foreigners that Americans, who can be so genuinely friendly, helpful, tactful and sensitive, both on a personal level and in an official capacity, can also be so damn flat-footed in matters of this kind. It’s infuriating.
It’s also like Cindy Crawford turning in to Roseanne. The look, and the implications of the look, are not good. The German incident hasn’t exactly raised the bar in terms of the image of the NSA.
Nor is it reasonable for the NSA to expect foreign intelligence to turn a blind eye, in terms of their own interests. NSA doesn’t have to tell the world what it’s doing, but the world would feel better to know that its operations were being conducted in a way which related to the common interest, as far as possible.
Nor can foreign intelligence be selectively ignorant. Governments will demand, with good reason, to know why their security is either compromised, however vaguely or benevolently, or their internal government business is under scrutiny. The foreign intelligence agencies have no answer to such demands. “We don’t know” is a recipe for early retirement, with equally good reason.
The US isn’t exactly tolerant of breaches of its own security, as has been well documented through the Wikileaks and Snowden incidents. Why would foreign governments be any more laid back about possible breaches?
A better option would be some sort of acknowledgement mechanism and better communications, however indirect, regarding operational matters. Intelligence operatives can keep their mouths shut, if they know when to do so, and are less likely to unintentionally compromise operations if they know how to do so.
Hopefully, this mess is an atypical slapstick incident, not a working model for future relations. It’s fixable, and it needs fixing.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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