In the latest example of United States government's ham-fisted approach to intelligence, reports have emerged detailing German plans to deploy agents that would keep tabs on American spies operating in the country.
First reported in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Thursday, the decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to surveil American and British spooks came just weeks after she expelled the CIA station chief from the US embassy in Berlin.
The expulsion was an extraordinary move for a close ally. But Merkel had little choice. She had to save face after discovering that the “best and brightest” at the CIA had moles in the German Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, and allegedly the German Ministry of Defense, too.
Merkel had reportedly been considering boosting German counterintelligence since last year, when whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) was eavesdropping on her mobile phone calls — not a good way to curry favor with a woman who grew up under the Stasi in communist East Germany.
The CIA’s infiltration was apparently the last straw.
Now, as President Barack Obama negotiates with Germany to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine — including asking the world’s fourth-largest economy to impose sanctions on Moscow — Americans and Germans will be eavesdropping on each other to learn about how they are eavesdropping on each other.
“I don’t know what they are thinking,” University of California at Santa Cruz professor Bruce Thompson, a historian of espionage, told VICE News. “Anyone with any experience would know the ally would find out about it, and there would be serious consequences that outweigh any possible gains. It seems like a great waste of resources for everybody.”
The controversy illustrates how the relationship between the US and Germany has changed in recent years.
Nearly a quarter of a century after German reunification, Merkel oversees an economic powerhouse that’s dependent on Russian oil. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, is chum of Russian President Vladimir Putin who took a job with a German-Russian gas pipeline company after he left office.
Thompson said he suspected the CIA wants to know more about those close ties.
“The only possible reason for doing this would be to try to figure out exactly what the Germans are up to in their relationship with Russia,” he said. “Obviously they do have a different view, a different interest.”
"There is no particular reason why a superpower confident in its place in the world would commit espionage against an ally.”
He raised objections to CIA apologists who have written in recent days that nobody should be surprised that the US was spying on Germany. Of course it’s acceptable for the US to gather intelligence and analysis on an ally, he said. But spying is different.
“Espionage is a breach of trust,” said Thompson. “It’s covert. It’s probably illegal. There is no particular reason why a superpower confident in its place in the world would commit espionage against an ally.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time America’s so-called spymasters have fumbled in public.
They let Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) hand over a treasure trove of diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. They let Snowden expose the NSA’s dubiously useful electronic surveillance dragnet before he found asylum in Russia. It’s not clear if they knew the Arab Spring was coming. It’s not clear if they knew Islamic militants would reverse years of gains in Iraq.
Go back 13 years. Even though the CIA seemingly predicted the possibility of Osama Bin Laden-orchestrated attacks a month before they occurred on September 11th — remember the "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” memo — the intelligence agency failed to stop a handful of deranged hijackers from flying commercial airliners into the Pentagon, the military headquarters of a country that spends more on defense than China, all of Europe, India, and Russia combined.
“It’s largely a history of failure,” said Thompson.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr