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Why Might The United States Be Spying On Germany?

A kite flies near the antennas of a former U.S. National Security Agency Cold War listening post at Teufelsberg hill in Berlin.
A kite flies near the antennas of a former U.S. National Security Agency Cold War listening post at Teufelsberg hill in Berlin.
Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine has reported that U.S. intelligence services intercept and store data from as many as half a billion German phone calls, e-mails, and text messages each month. The report, published June 30 and based on top-secret documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, also indicates that the National Security Agency bugged the European Union's offices in Washington and at the United Nations in New York.

Johannes Thimm, a U.S. expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, spoke to RFE/RL's Claire Bigg about NSA's interest in Germany and the revelations' impact on U.S.-German relations.

RFE/RL: According to "Der Spiegel," the NSA combs through roughly half a billion German phone calls, e-mails, and text messages in a typical month. This is much more than any European nation. The U.S. intelligence agency has also reportedly classified Germany as a "third-class" partner, on a par with China or Iraq. If this is true, why is the NSA taking such an acute interest in Germany?

Johannes Thimm:
Based on the information that we have so far, it looks like Germany has been targeted to a level exceeding that of other European countries. And while we still don't have all of the information and have to be careful with speculation, I can think of a number of reasons why this has shown up in the documents in the way it has.

One of the reasons is that German and American intelligence agencies have a very close cooperation dating back to the years of the Cold War, when Western Germany was a frontline state in the standoff with the Soviet empire. A lot of the United States' intelligence infrastructure and presence in Germany, including that of the U.S. intelligence agency, dates back to that time.

Another reason is that there might be infrastructure in Germany that functions as a hub for communications that originate elsewhere in the world and go through German communication lines or servers and that the U.S. intelligence community might have an interest in.

Johannes Thimm
Johannes Thimm
A third reason is that Germany is an economic heavyweight within Europe, meaning that its positions on all kinds of issues related to economic policy and trade matters more than the positions of other European countries. Examples could be the question of how to solve the euro crisis or the European economic crisis, where Germany has a prominent role to play, or the negotiations about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in which Germany's position also matters greatly and where the U.S. government may be very interested in the European stances on certain issues.

RFE/RL: Do you think the revelations could affect negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between Europe and the United States?

Yes, I definitely think they will be affected. We have also learned that EU institutions are the target of systematic intelligence gathering or spying. Hard economic interests are involved in the TTIP negotiations. These negotiations are very complex and require a lot of communication between EU institutions and member states, and having access to these communications would give the U.S. government a tactical advantage. I do think that this will be a burden on the negotiations.

RFE/RL: How has the broader public in Germany reacted to the revelations, and do you think they will hurt diplomatic ties with Washington?

I think this influences the perception of U.S. foreign policy among the European public. One poll showed that one-third of Germans see Edward Snowden as a hero. In several European countries, including Germany, people are greatly concerned about data protection and privacy issues. Consequently, they are upset about what is going on. So I do think that it will affect the image of the United States in Europe.

RFE/RL: German federal prosecutors are currently examining whether U.S. surveillance activities broke German laws. What are the chances of criminal charges being filed against U.S. officials?

Again, we know very little about what has been going on. What I can say is that German prosecutors operate quite independently from the German government. So regardless of how the government decides to deal with this politically, I think German prosecutors feel they have a duty to look into the matter and come up with [their] own conclusions.

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