Michael Goewe was excited when he arrived in his nation’s capital to see the sights.
But as he was planning this visit back in his home in Cologne, he hadn’t figured the seemingly boring U.S. Embassy in central Berlin would be among the must-see items. Plans changed over the last week. A steady stream of news reports on how the Americans had been spying on the German political class, including now three-term Chancellor Angela Merkel, pinpointed the top floor of the embassy.
“We knew the spy news this summer, but it’s reached a new magnitude when you learn they’ve been spying on the chancellor,” he said. “It’s clear now that something has to be done, and so you want to see where it’s based.”
When the new American embassy opened here five years ago, there was more than a little grousing. The building was boring, critics argued, and looked to be more about keeping the rest of the world away than projecting an image. Locals worried that reopening the embassy in the very heart of a reunified Berlin, in a reunified Germany, would make the iconic surroundings less accessible. And there were fears that mooted plans to shut down the road running along the backside of the embassy would somehow snarl downtown traffic.
But there was little talk about the top floor of the embassy, and the antennas atop it. Until now. This weekend, the latest issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel has a cover photo with a creepy Cold War feel to it of what’s atop the embassy, under the headline “Das Nest.”
The magazine analyzes the top floor of the building. It focuses on the gray box-like rooms on the top that appear to have stone-colored windows. The magazine found experts and journalists who postulated that such an appearance is likely hiding highly sensitive spy equipment. They note that documents indicate the embassy’s top floors are home to a joint National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency spy program.
Berlin visitors say the fact that the embassy rises above the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a painful testament to what can happen when a paranoid government moves unchecked. The embassy roof offers an unrestricted view of the Reichstag a block to the north, the seat of the federal government. Two blocks to the south is the futuristic Sony Center, a symbol of reunified Germany’s economic rebirth.
The embassy is, without a doubt, a building at the very heart of this nation, residing in an honored place that has made sense to Germans. The United States is considered such a staunch and worthy ally.
But then the spy scandal erupted with the release by former NSA worker Edward Snowden of records that indicated the United States was sweeping up hundreds of millions of electronic communications. The documents he released indicated the NSA was studying emails with key words or phrases and recording so-called “metadata” from smart phones, information tracking the movement and actions of phone owners. The embassy became the focus of an occasional protest, the slogan “United Stasi of America” projected from across the street onto its walls.
Hans-Christian Stroebele, the longest serving member of Germany’s Bundestag intelligence committee, made a point of saying that Merkel announced, and Germans believed, soon after the scandal broke that this horrible tale had ended. That the scandal instead has intensified is deeply disturbing. He admitted it’s a deep rift. Fixing it would require the Obama administration to “put all facts on the table and put an end to the spying immediately, and rule out a repetition in the future.”
In Berlin, a city so recently tortured by the information-stealing Stasi intelligence organization of East Germany, and before that by the Gestapo’s brutal use of information in Nazi Germany, such allegations cut deeply.
But in the past week, the anger has increased. The reason is simple: Germans might not appreciate the means but are as anti-terrorism as any people and could understand the motives. But tapping the cellphones of their chancellor and other political leaders clearly has nothing to do with anti-terror efforts.
Johannes Thimm, a North America expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin think tank, said it’s becoming increasingly clear that the NSA is violating a lot of laws around the globe, and for very little – if any – worthwhile gain.
“This spying cannot plausibly be explained as the prevention of terrorist activities,” he said. “The notion that the ends justify the means is a Cold War mindset, and I would argue this mindset didn’t serve the West well even in the Cold War.”
Joerg Wolf, editor in chief and a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Community, a Berlin-based think tank, said the secondary defense of the American spy policy – after it became clear that spying on the heads of 35 nations isn’t about anti-terror activities – is that “everybody does it.” But he said he doesn’t buy that, either.
“I am convinced that Germany (since 1945) has never tried to bug a U.S. president,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t have the capabilities. And we are far too cautious to take the risk. Besides, the concrete benefits for us would be limited. And it’s just plain wrong.”
Stroebele appeared to back up that idea. He said German foreign intelligence has publicly denied spying on the United States.
“The possibility was considered almost a sacrilege,” he said. “I don’t think Germany would dare to spy on the Americans, let alone on a high level.”
Wolf went on to note that mistakes have costs. Germans are outraged and saddened that the bad guy here is a long trusted and admired ally.
“A lot of trust between our countries has been destroyed,” he said. “The Obama-Merkel relationship might not recover.”
Of course, the anger is hardly limited to Germany. Laurence Nardon, a security expert at the Paris-based Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, said she spent the summer dismissing the allegations as unfortunate but the sort of things nations must do in a world dealing with international terrorism. But targeting national leaders so clearly removes this from an anti-terror strategy, and the scope goes so far beyond what other nations would contemplate, that it became impossible to maintain her professional indifference.
Beyond this, the more she learned about what was being gathered, the more she came to believe it was almost entirely useless. What was being gathered appeared to be gathered simply because it was possible to gather that information, not because there was a reason to gather it.
“It is clear that the American intelligence community became a group of children, unsupervised, in a candy store,” she said. “Each type of information was so easy to grab, and they all looked so tempting, that they grabbed all they could, simply because they could.
“The problem, of course, is that the children soon find that too much candy leads to stomach aches. In this case, the stomach ache came when the world found out what they were doing.”