Opinion Editorial

Berlin vs. Washington: When friends spy on friends

Spy wars: Germany-U.S. spat is bad for relations

Commenting on the execution of a French nobleman by Napoleon, the French diplomat Talleyrand supposedly observed: "It was worse than a crime — it was a blunder." That consummate expression of realpolitik certainly applies to the alleged U.S. espionage operation in Germany that has strained relations between the two countries.

Following the arrest of a German intelligence officer who told his superiors that he had been recruited to spy for the Central Intelligence Agency, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last week that "the representative of the U.S. intelligence services at the U.S. Embassy has been asked to leave Germany." (The German government reportedly is investigating whether a second official had been spying for the U.S. as well.)

The expulsion of the CIA's station chief in Berlin is an embarrassing reproach to the United States, which considers itself one of Germany's closest allies, and reflects long-standing resentment of hyperactive intelligence collection by the U.S. The move comes eight months after Merkel complained to President Obama about reports that the U.S. had long listened in on her cellphone conversations.

The recruiting of the German official apparently took place before the uproar over electronic eavesdropping on Merkel and other European leaders revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. But it would have been reckless of the CIA at any point in recent history to try to "turn" an official of a friendly government whose support is vital in several initiatives of importance to the U.S., from talks with Iran about its nuclear program to negotiations with Russia on Ukraine.

Most governments, including the United States, engage in espionage against even friendly nations. But, even if it can be justified in the abstract, spying on a close ally is as likely to undermine as to enhance the security of the U.S.

The case against spying on Germany is especially compelling. Though Merkel is reliably pro-American, other members of her coalition government are more critical of U.S. policy, as is much of German public opinion. The CIA particularly is held in ill repute because of its role in the rendition and torture of suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush administration. Even before the latest revelations, Merkel was under pressure to distance herself from the U.S. That pressure won't relent just because she has sent the CIA station chief packing.

Merkel said last week that Germany and the U.S. shouldn't "waste energy" spying on each other. Obama should make sure that the CIA and other intelligence agencies understand and act on that message.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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