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When Deals are not Deals: The German-US No-Spy Arrangement

When Deals are not Deals: The German-US No-Spy Arrangement

By Binoy Kampmark

16 January 2014

It was not bound to happen and it is unlikely to. The huffing that tends to accompany recrimination and disagreement about espionage revelations is predictable. Elected representatives need to earn their keep and stay in the good books of their electorates. Intelligence officials know better – they are paid to be dirty, to find material, to think the worst of the other side. The show must go on, and intelligence agencies are part of the theatre set that demands that very fact.

In August, it was agreed that Germany and the United States would hold talks over a bilateral “no-spy” deal. By all means, spy together, but not on each other. There was even some discussion about a possible spying alliance along the Five Eyes arrangement similar to that shared with Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. US Congressmen Tim Ryan and Charles Dent certainly feel that a sixth eye would be valuable, requesting last November in a letter to President Barack Obama that the administration “essentially enters into negotiations to strike an agreement extending the Five Eyes Intelligence Pact and include Germany” (Deutsche Welle, Nov 22, 2013).

This curious set of circumstances in international relations seemingly raised the bar: the German chancellor Angela Merkel needed to convince Obama that hacking and observing her emails was simply not on. A cordon sanitaire was needed.

Obama’s reaction has been one of assurance rather than full hearted commitment. He had told Merkel that the US “is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of chancellor Merkel”. The German press began to get suspicious. At the very least, they sensed something was wrong in the current state of dragging negotiations. The Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted a source on Tuesday claiming that US officials had exercised a good bit of mendacity: they lied to us. But much of this is simply an effort to front up to the German public. The Americans have a role to play in this drama of deceit – they must have been the stonewallers, the fabricators. The Germans have to be seen as morally indignant.

In fact, the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) does not want the resources to dry up – they can still call on NSA intelligence and other US sources when required, at least in some measure. As the US State Department’s deputy spokesperson Marie Harf explains, “the goal of these discussions have been to further intensify and strengthen cooperation between the US and German intelligence services. The US and Germany already cooperate extensively in the areas of security and intelligence to address global threats that we all face” (AP, Jan 14). No talk of cordons sanitaires there.

A no-spy arrangement also works both ways – it imposes a drought, engineers a famine of sorts. Given that intelligence agencies work on the principle of accumulating information, this is not a state of affairs either side wants. The prize remains information, however useful it is. Privacy tends to sulk in the corner.

The politicians, on the other hand, have an audience to play to. Their world also involves theatre, but the stage set is dramatically different. For them, images have to be convincing, the sale plausible. The big bad NSA of the USA is a popular target, but what of the German intelligence service? For that reason, it is far better to be keeping up the appearance that negotiations are pending, yet still exercise some wriggling room by claiming the Americans are being stubborn. In the words of Der Spiegel, “The No-Spy deal is alive”, even though it is a case of “forced optimism” (Jan 15).

Washington, in response, is simply pretending German law makers don’t exist, at least in the form of grievances. Witness the suggestions of blissful ignorance on the part of Harf, who claimed that she was unaware of reports that German negotiators were unhappy with the way talks were proceeding (AP, Jan 14).

A few German political figures are suggesting that the high ground must be taken. Thomas Opperman, the caucus leader of the Social Democrats, partners in Merkel’s coalition, is pressing for a full fledged “no-spy” agreement claiming that its “failure” would be untenable, changing “the political character of relations” between the two countries.

Stephan Mayer, the new internal affairs spokesman for Merkel’s parliamentary group, told Reuters on Tuesday that a form of retaliation was on the cards to counter American stubbornness. “The Americans understand one language very well, and that is the language of business.” Should talks fail, Germany might well consider “whether US firms receive government contracts from the German side or public institutions.” Mayer may be on to something, in a roundabout way.

German companies have also been alarmed at the revelations of the Prism program, Tempora and XKeyscore. As noted in Der Spiegel (Jul 23, 2013), “Many firms are now worried that the intelligence services aren’t just trying to pinpoint terrorists but to get at German industrial secrets as well. They fear that their lead over US, British and French competitors would be at risk.”

In the end, the Anglophone empire of intelligence services, in terms of what they share with each other, will come first. Much of that relationship arises because prejudices attract like prejudices. The Germans have been allowed a foot in, but only partially. They offer too much and pose a formidable competitive angle through their small and medium-sized business sector termed Mittelstand. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain do not necessarily produce the quality of material Germany does, certainly in the realm of industrial espionage. Far better to spy on them, those pharmaceutical wizards, the mechanical innovators, the state of the art engineers. German-made remains potent. For the Anglophones, they are far more useful that way.


Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:


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