US Spying on Europe and Its German Reactions

Photo source: Fair Observer

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

There had been reports that Denmark’s military agency had helped the United States to spy on leading European politicians, including Angela Merkel. As a reaction, the European Union had been demanding answers.

'Danmarks Radio', a Danish public broadcaster, revealed that US National Security Agency (NSA), whose alleged tapping of Merkel’s phone was made known by Edward Snowden, in 2013, also used Danish Defense Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste) to spy on officials in Sweden, France and Norway.

There is an insider-classified report on FE’s role in the surveillance partnership agreement with NSA from 2012 to 2015. The Danish broadcaster cited nine unidentified sources familiar with the investigation.

NSA had apparently used Danish information cables to spy on senior officials, including the former German foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, and then opposition leader Peer Steinburck. However, it was not clear whether Danish government was directly involved.

Steinburck was further convinced that NSA's and FE’s activities were a political scandal. He even accepted that western states needed intelligence services, but added that it was ‘grotesque that friendly intelligence services were indeed intercepting and spying on top representatives of other countries’.

Danish Defense Minister, Trine Bramsen, was reportedly informed of the espionage in August 2020. She told Danmarks Radio that systematic eavesdropping of close allies was ‘clearly unacceptable’.

According to Danish broadcaster, the NSA received text messages, calls and Internet traffic searches, and chats, thanks to partnership with FE.

Denmark, a close US ally, hosts several key landing stations for undersea Internet cables to and from Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain. However, the director of FE has not commented on the report. In 2020, an independent oversight board had suspended the then director Lars Findsen, and three other officials, citing accusations of serious wrongdoings, stemming from the internal investigation, which initially began in 2015. It did reflect something fishy.

The 2013 Snowden affair happened amidst Obama administration, when the former NSA contractor revealed thousands of secret documents exposing the vast US surveillance operation, after the 2001 9/11 attacks. Snowden had accused Joe Biden, who was the US vice-president at that time, of being deeply involved, the first time around. Snowden, on Twitter, had called for  ‘full public disclosure not only from Denmark, but their senior partner as well’.

The FE had launched the internal investigation – code-named “Operation Dunhammer”, following concerns about Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013, revealing how the NSA works. But, upon receiving the Dunhammer findings, FE’s top management at the time did not scrap the collaboration with the NSA.

Obama had apologised to Merkel, at the time, and had also said that he knew nothing about the alleged spying, and would have blocked it, if he knew. Now, the renewed spotlight on the issue could create a new bother for President Joe Biden.

The scenario could lead major European powers such as Germany to embrace Russia, instead of Western powers. It has left sections of the German parliament, the Bundestag, taking counter-measures to make sure sensitive discussions remain private. The parliamentary committee set up to investigate NSA-type surveillance has resorted to using soundproof rooms, playing loud classical music during briefings, and even considered ditching email in favour of typewriters, in a bid to protect against further breaches, according to Patrick Sensburg, who was interviewed by NBC News.

Conversely, as per the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's own spies have even shifted some of their focus, from old antagonists like China and Iran, to watching the clandestine activities of American operatives on their own soil.

“The situation has become extremely bad, and it is seriously regrettable it has gotten to this stage," said Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at University of Buckingham."With the Middle East in turmoil it is not a good time for a country that is democratic and Western to be at loggerheads with the U.S. It’s not yet at the nightmare scenario - one in which Germany gets closer to Russia - but it’s heading toward that."

How the U.S. and Germany got into this situation can be traced back to the end of the Second World War, when the Nazi regime was disbanded, and the country split in two: West Germany, which was overseen by the West, and East Germany, which was part of Stalin's Soviet bloc. 

Historically, the United States, was responsible for setting up the German spy agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). It was treated by Washington as a kind of their imperial enterprise, until the fall of the Soviet Union, and reunification of Germany, in 1990. 

Germany’s intelligence agency has always been considered a rather junior league agency by United States. These perceived shortcomings came into existence in the 1990s, when German intelligence failed to locate and foil the now infamous "Hamburg Cell," a radical Islamist group that included at least three of the perpetrators of 9/11, including Mohammed Atta. 9/11 was a plan hatched in Hamburg, beyond the radar of German intelligence.

This led to a U.S. mistrust of a German intelligence service that had been stunted in both resources and support during the Cold War era. After Atta and his co-conspirators slipped through the woods, the spying on the German government was likely an attempt by the ghostly officers in Langley, Virginia, to ensure the U.S. was not hit by another extremist attack. Another worry the U.S. may have had on its radar was increased German ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia, as the country still relies on Moscow for a quarter of its gas, oil and coal.

However, Professor Sebastian Harnisch, at Germany’s University of Heidelberg, suggested  apprehensions that 'Berlin cozying up to Moscow were ludicrous, and that the idea really does not hold any water at all'.

NSA’s spying on other European nations would be for the same reasons that are for national security. Although governments in Europe and Asia, in particular, are reassured by President Joe Biden’s experience of shoring up U.S. alliances, their confidence in America's ability to deliver on its commitments has been deeply weakened, and Trump's departure as president won't by default restore their faith.

Foreign ministries now see protectionist, populist currents as permanent features of the U.S. political landscape, with Americans increasingly questioning alliance arrangements, troop commitments, and the benefits of global trade. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Americans said that they should pay less attention to problems overseas, and concentrate more on problems at home. But, it won’t remove the smear of ultra secretive operations, which the Americans have done in the past.



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