Germany is the theatre in which the consequences of Edward Snowden’s disclosures are being played out. Why is this?
Obviously, privacy and data protection are especially sensitive in Germany. After the Stasi, the centrality of big databases to the West German state’s response to the left-wing terrorists of the 1970s, and the extensive Nazi use of telephone intercepts during the seizure of power, it couldn’t really be otherwise. Privacy and digital activism is older and better established in Germany than anywhere else – in the US, for example, I consider the founding text of the movement to be the FBI vs. Steve Jackson Games case from 1990 or thereabouts, while the key text in Germany is the court judgment on the national census from ten years earlier. But the UK has a (strong) data protection act and no-one seems anywhere near as exercised, although they probably should be.
So here’s an important German word, which we could well import into English: Deutungshoheit. This translates literally as “interpretative superiority” and is analogous to “air superiority”. Deutungshoheit is what politicians and their spin doctors attempt to win by putting forward their interpretations and framings of the semirandom events that constitute the “news”. In this case, the key event was Snowden’s disclosure of the BOUNDLESS INFORMANT slides, which show that the NSA’s Internet surveillance operations collect large amounts of information from sources in Germany.
The slides don’t say anything about how, whether this was information on German customers handed over by US cloud companies under PRISM orders, tapped from cables elsewhere, somehow collected inside Germany, or perhaps shared with the NSA by German intelligence. This last option is by far the most controversial and the most illegal in Germany. The battle for Deutungshoheit, therefore, consisted in denying any German involvement and projecting the German government, like the people in question, as passive victims of US intrusion.
On the other hand, Snowden’s support-network in the Berlin digital activist world, centred around Jacob “ioerror” Applebaum, strove to imply that in fact German agencies had been active participants, and Snowden’s own choice of further disclosures seems to have been guided by an intent to influence German politicians. Der Spiegel, rather than the Guardian, has been getting documents first and their content is mostly about Germany.
In this second phase, the German political elite has shifted its feet; rather than trying to deny any involvement whatsoever, they have instead tried to interpret the possibility of something really outrageous as being necessary for your security, and part of fundamental alliance commitments which cannot be questioned within the limits of respectable discourse. The ur-text here is Die Zeit‘s interview with Angela Merkel, in which Merkel argues that she knew nothing, further that there was a balance to strike between freedom and security, that although some kinds of spying were unacceptable, the alliance came first. The effectiveness of this, at least in the context of the interview, can be measured by astonishingly uncritical questions like the one in which she was asked “what additional efforts were necessary from the Germans to maintain their competitiveness”.
So what’s going on? British intelligence historian Richard Aldrich’s history of the UK signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, is illuminating. He argues that since the 1980s, the (West-) German government has had a long-term policy of building up the BND intelligence agency’s SIGINT capability. This was explicitly encouraged by the NSA, specifically its then director William Odom, who wished to get less European intelligence from the British. Obviously, this implies German intelligence sharing with the NSA.
At the same time, the (West-) Germans wanted to get more of their own information on subjects that interested them, notably operational-level (corps and above) military intelligence on the Soviet forces. The British were also concerned about this, for different reasons. The intelligence alliance between the UK and US, and the so-called Tier 2 partners (Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), predates NATO and was often sceptical about the security of NATO and West German institutions. As a result, signals intelligence reaching NATO commanders in Germany was often marked CAN/US/UK EYES ONLY and therefore too secret to show the Bundeswehr, who were providing 500,000 soldiers in 12 armoured and mechanised divisions with 24 hours’ notice. The absurdity of this can be seen from the fact that NATO multinational HQs often had a German general as one of the three posts of commander, deputy commander, or chief of staff. The British were, for their part, concerned that the US system was not going to get usable reports forward into the field in time to be any use. Both the UK, with the Nimrod R1 program, and the Germans spent serious money to solve this.
Another factor in the 80s was that France was encouraging other European countries to contribute to its own intelligence collaboration. Joining this would only add a further degree of dependence, on France, if Germany didn’t bring something to the table. Building up the BND and sharing information therefore served several different motives.
There was a patron-client motive, in which the Germans sought greater independence from the US (and its allies). There was an alliance-integration motive, in which the Germans (and the UK, and the US) sought to strengthen the alliance’s (or alliances?) technical capability and to deepen the partners’ commitment to it (them?). And there was also a bargaining or marketlike motive, in which the Germans were seeking to have more intelligence on hand that could be traded for advantages, whether with the French, the US, or whoever. I think this is also true of the other participants in the intelligence alliances – the UK, for example, didn’t build its own satellite capability, partly because there was a feeling that the Americans would do it better, but also because participating more deeply in the US satellite program, by having part of the take from the satellites downlinked at Menwith Hill and analysed at GCHQ, created a stronger bargaining position with the Americans (and others) in terms of the final intelligence product.
We now know, thanks to the latest Snowden event, that the BND and the federal version of the Verfassungschutz were offered the use of the X-KEYSCORE system, which seems to be an analytics tool for working with a wide variety of Internet surveillance data sets. Interestingly, the Verfassungsschutzer were offered training by BND officers, implying that they already had the system.
The US motive can also be analysed in the same terms as above. As an ally, they may have wished to strengthen German antiterrorist efforts (this happened shortly after the discovery of a terrorist plot in Germany). As a patron, they may have wished to reward their client, and also discourage them from developing their own technology or cooperating with some other party (like China!, following Britain’s lead). This was fairly common in the cold war era, according to Aldrich, when there was both a will to improve NATO communications security and a will to maintain some advantage over the other NATO partners. And as a bargaining actor, they may have acted because they were offered a good deal in return. So, what was the deal?
(If you want a clue, you might wonder what the large company operating in both the US and Germany mentioned in some of the PRISM documents is.)
In general, I think the BND is likely to have shifted from being closer to the “patron/client” model, towards “bargaining/market”, while still being very much “alliance/integration”. After all, the last sections of the NSA facility in Germany were handed back in May last year. It is very telling, though, that one of the first reactions to the Snowden disclosures from German politicians was outrage that Germany wasn’t considered even a “Tier-2” partner – probably fake outrage from those in the know. (As we have seen, this term has a definition.) This isn’t the reaction of people who are horrified at the thought of spying, though, rather that of people shocked that their investment in spying is not paying off as well as they hoped.
So, to round off, the point of the battle for Deutungshoheit is to maintain the primacy of Atlanticism in German public debate on foreign policy. This is, in many ways, the mirror image of the primacy of ECB-ism in debate on economic policy. Those who accept the consensus are respectable, those who aren’t, aren’t. If you doubt, the same issue of Die Zeit would tell you that the EU-US trade agreement must be signed for the sake of the “political West”. Everything going on here is touching on German privacy fear, but also on profound questions of geopolitics, and just politics. It is therefore very interesting that Der Spiegel, usually very, very NATO-minded, is being so difficult and un-biddable.
It is also probable that Edward Snowden’s best chance to get out of Russia is to disrupt the politics of SIGINT in Europe as much as possible.