The revelation that Germany spies on Turkey, a NATO member, should dispel any notion that spying on allies violates the unwritten rules of international espionage, despite Berlin’s numerous suggestions otherwise.
For nearly a year, the extent of NSA surveillance on German leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, has drawn stern rebuke from the German political and media establishment. Merkel and other German politicians never miss an opportunity to criticize the United States. Merkel went so far as to publicly oust the CIA station chief in Berlin.
"Spying among friends is not at all acceptable," Merkel said in October, a claim she has repeated numerous times, most recently last month.
However, Germany’s sanctimony toward "friendly" espionage is now a huge embarrassment for Merkel. Over the weekend, Der Spiegel reported that the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence collection agency, was spying on Turkey. It also reported, based on anonymous sources, that calls made by Secretary of State John Kerry and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were accidentally recorded. According to Der Spiegel, the calls targeting American leaders were immediately destroyed.
Tensions between Germany and Turkey are nothing new. Berlin has long opposed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. A recent poll found that 69 percent of Germans oppose allowing Turkey into the EU, up from 52 percent in 2005. In 2012, Germany also dragged its feet in supplying Turkey with missiles to secure its border with Syria, despite Turkey’s formal request through NATO.
The German government has yet to address the allegations. But Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said that if the allegations are true, they are "totally unacceptable." Turkey also summoned German Ambassador Eberhard Pohl on Monday, demanding an explanation.
"It is expected that the German authorities present an official and satisfactory explanation on the claims reported by German media and end these activities immediately if the claims are true," the ministry said in a statement.
Lindsay Moran, a former CIA clandestine service officer, doesn’t believe that the German spying on American officials was an accident.
"I find the notion that [Clinton and Kerry] were accidentally overheard preposterous," she said, adding: "It’s a kind of delightful revelation given the fact that the Germans have been on their high horse."
Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior advisor, added that the report on German spying is a perfect example of why rifts over intelligence among allies should be handled quietly and privately.
"Governments — especially allies — ought to handle espionage claims with a simple refusal to comment. That used to be the practice," Whiton said. "Otherwise, they risk looking sanctimonious or hypocritical, as Berlin now does."
Merkel is now in a tough spot. The BND’s collection of intelligence from Turkey is necessary; Germany has a large Turkish immigrant population and has arrested some on terrorism charges.
"Any responsible government collects as much foreign intelligence as possible," Whiton said.
Now, Berlin’s ability to do so is compromised.
Daniel Kurtzer, who formerly served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, said that Berlin isn’t likely to buy into the argument that spying on Turkey justifies the NSA targeting Merkel. "It’s still a problem that needs to be solved between the two," Kurtzer said.
But Moran, the former CIA officer, said that American diplomats finally have ammunition to respond, especially after the CIA station chief was booted out of Germany.
"It was kind of unprecedented and done to embarrass us," Moran said of the ouster. "The Germans will take an evasive stance [on their espionage activities] but now they’re in no position to criticize."