The Briefing

Snowden And The Opposite Of Blowback

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Washington Post carried a truly revelatory story by Greg Miller in its December 29 editions, although the story perhaps failed to generate as much attention as it should have. Some of the neglect may have been a product of its publication between Christmas and New Year’s, but a larger share is surely attributable to the inconvenience of its content. The headline was “Backlash in Berlin over NSA spying recedes as threat from Islamic State rises,” but, as they say, that ain’t the half of it.

The critical detail is that the German government has been passing names, email addresses, and cell phone numbers to US intelligence in order to track and investigate German citizens who have gone to the Middle East and may have joined al Qaeda or the Islamic State — with a key question being whether they intend to return to Germany and perpetrate attacks there.

Miller’s account cited senior German and US officials anonymously, which is unsurprising given the sensitive nature of the activity. Nevertheless, it seems a fairly authoritative indication that far from having deteriorated as a result of the furor in Germany over the Snowden revelations about US snooping, intelligence cooperation between the two countries is closer than ever.

There’s a very good reason for this, of course. Some 550 German citizens have departed for jihad in points south, and the problem is hardly Germany’s alone. Intelligence officials reckon the total number of Europeans who have joined the fight in the Middle East at no fewer than 3,000 of the 15,000 foreign fighters in the area. Moreover, travel within Europe is wide-open once one crosses the Schengen border. One need not even show a passport to go from Germany to France, for example. There are accordingly no remotely sufficient “national” approaches to security at European national borders. A cooperative effort is essential. And it seems that the capacity of the NSA to track individuals who might pose a threat in Europe is unsurpassed by any European capabilities.

Circumstances are unlikely to change any time soon. A US intelligence official told Miller that the challenge posed by radicalized fighters is a “decadal issue.” So it is, even though it seems unlikely that this fact has sunk in among populations on either side of the Atlantic.

That’s not to say that Germans and others are happy with all the uses to which the United States has put its surveillance capabilities. The Snowden disclosure that the United States was listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone conversations was especially galling. But as the senior German intelligence official told Miller, analogizing the US-German relationship to a dysfunctional marriage, “the question remaining is whether the husband is a notorious cheater or can be faithful again. We’re just going to have to give it another try. There is no alternative. Divorce is out of the question.”

Thus what we have is a story of uninterrupted and increasing intelligence cooperation based on shared interests and a common threat. This is less sexy than a story about the transatlantic relationship in a state of crisis, but it is the reality before us. The Snowden revelations have almost certainly helped terrorist groups better understand and presumably evade US surveillance. The damage there is real, and no doubt much is underway behind the scenes to repair it and work around it (though it would be naïve to think an eventual Snowden II is somehow preventable). But as far as introducing a fissure that would produce an irremediable break in relations between the United States and its allies, that seems to have been little more than a fantasy of Snowden and his supporters and patrons.1

But we should not dismiss the senior German intelligence official’s perceptive comments as Germany’s resignation to the inevitable. It’s true that on the face of it, if “divorce is out of the question,” then “whether the husband is a notorious cheater or can be faithful again” is nugatory with regard to the basis of interest that is sustaining the relationship. And if the actions of the United States government since 9/11 in response to terrorist threats tell us anything, it’s that from Germany’s rigorous law-based perspective at least, Washington is most unlikely to become permanently faithful.

There have indeed been numerous past instances in which the United States has failed to meet German (and other) standards, and there will be again. Rightly so, alas. But fewer episodes of cheating, again from the German perspective, are probably better than more. Even Machiavelli could have no objection to a US government that was willing to do bad things only when necessary, and otherwise try to behave.


[1] 1This was entirely predictable, as I can attest having predicted it in an essay for The Briefing last year:

Needless to say, a regime of greater intelligence cooperation with the United States is not exactly the outcome the German NSA scandal-mongers were promoting. But if you had to bet on a five-years-later scenario for the NSA revelations, the bet that intelligence cooperation between the United States and Germany will increase in that period would be smarter than a bet on the proposition that snooping on Merkel’s cell phone so damaged relations that the two sides decide to disengage.