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The Consequences of Weaving Tangled Webs, German Edition

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive.

— Sir Walter Scott

The fallout of the Edward Snowden revelations continues, and each succeeding day seems to prove the wisdom of Sir Walter Scott’s poetry. Der Spiegel has been probing the consequences in Germany, one of which is the disruption of Angela Merkel’s annual vacation. Federal elections are just two months away — elections Merkel and her CDU compatriots have been expected to win easily — and she and her party are now playing defense over their relationship with the NSA:

The details [of the revelations of close cooperation between the NSA and the BND, Germany’s version of the CIA] also raise new problems for Merkel because they will shift some of the focus in the scandal to her Chancellery and her chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, who is also the chancellor’s intelligence coordinator. The Chancellery is responsible for the government’s supervision of intelligence agencies, and critical questions will be posed about whether Pofalla knew about the programs. The heads of the intelligence agencies meet several times a month with Chancellery officials to discuss current developments, and Pofalla has had plenty of opportunities recently to ask questions.

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Pofalla is likely to come under considerable pressure — if he didn’t know anything, then he allowed the intelligence services to make a fool out of him. And if he did have details, then he will have to answer questions about why he didn’t mention that knowledge to the closed-door committee in parliament responsible for oversight of German intelligence. Pofalla chose not to comment when contacted on Sunday by SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Pofalla — and by extension Merkel — must choose one of two answers: “I’m incompetent” or “I’m a liar.” After a grilling by the intelligence committee of the Bundestag (parliament), Deutsche Welle describes how Pofalla tried to use a third approach: “Nothing to see here. Move along, move along . . .”:

Pofalla, who is in charge of Germany’s intelligence services, relayed the NSA’s message to the panel that mass-scale spying did not take place, but declined to provide more details. He added that all allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the US and Germany had been disproven.

“The German [foreign intelligence agency] operates in accordance with law and order,” said Pofalla after the hearing. “[It] complies with data protection 100 percent.”

The committee’s chairman, opposition Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentarian Thomas Oppermann, however, argued that nothing had been achieved on Thursday. “We’ve made no progress whatsoever,” he said, adding that either the government is not being forthright or “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.”

For her own part, Merkel has chosen the Sgt. Schultz “I knew nothing!” path. Again from Der Spiegel:

This is awkward news for Merkel, who is running for re-election as the head of the center-right Christian Democrats. The German campaign had been relatively uneventful until recently, but now a new issue seems to have emerged: the Americans’ lust for data. Opposition politicians have intensified their attacks in recent days. First Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for the Chancellery, accused Merkel of having violated her oath of office for failing to protect the basic rights of Germans. Not long later, SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel referred to Merkel as a “spin doctor who is trying to placate the population.” According to Gabriel, it has since been proven that the German government knew about the NSA’s activities.

But the attacks from the SPD are not the chancellor’s biggest worry; the real threat comes from within. At a very early juncture, Merkel insisted that her government had been completely unaware of the NSA’s activities. It is a position she reiterated before starting her summer vacation last Friday [July 17th].

She will now be judged on the basis of those statements. Internally, Merkel’s advisors argue that she had no choice but to take such a clear position. After all, both the head of the BND and the president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, had said that they had had no detailed knowledge of the Prism surveillance program and the extent of American data collection. On what basis could Merkel have contradicted them?

But with each day, fears are growing at the Chancellery that a paper could eventually turn up that clearly shows the government’s knowledge of the NSA activities.

Thus far, this mess does not seem to have hurt her poll numbers much, but it’s hardly the way to move into the final weeks of a campaign. Especially when stories like this are beginning to emerge:

Snooping Fears: German Firms Race to Shield Secrets – “Edward Snowden’s revelations about data surveillance have left German firms feeling acutely vulnerable to industrial espionage. In the medium-sized business sector, which contains a host of world leaders in high-tech fields, the race is on to shield vital know-how.”

Rumors of NSA surveillance outpost in Wiesbaden persist – “One of the US Army’s most important facilities in Europe since the end of World War Two is in Wiesbaden, west of Frankfurt. During the Berlin blockade, this is where US planes took off in 1949 to supply Berlin with food, fuel and aid in what became known as the Berlin airlift. Today, the US Army in Europe (USAREUR) has its headquarters in Wiesbaden and is reportedly building a new military intelligence center that may also be used by the US National Security Agency (NSA.)”

These are not the musings of tabloids looking for sensationalist angles on outrageous stories, but sober reflections in Der Spiegel and Deutsche Welle, both well-respected mainstream media outlets. And if the corporate world gets nervous about what Merkel and her CDU have done in their cooperation with the US and the NSA, that could spell doomsday when the ballots are counted.

This isn’t just a problem for Merkel and the Germans, but a sign of a bigger one for Obama, the State Department, the US intelligence agencies, and whoever succeeds Obama in 2016. The growing problem can be expressed quite easily: what happens the next time a US president goes to a foreign leader and says “We’d like your help with this little project . . .”? The more damage Merkel sustains over PRISM and other US spy projects, the more likely those foreign leaders will say “no thanks.”

Can’t anyone in DC think more than two steps ahead? Maybe if they read more Scottish poetry it would help.


h/t to Ronnie MacDonald for the photo of the Sir Walter Scott memorial, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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