Spies Like U.S.

The most delightfully lighthearted and ironic scene in the film Casablanca is when Claude Rains, as the seemingly easygoing corrupt police chief, says to Humphrey Bogart, the enigmatic night club owner, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”  The croupier then hands him his winnings from the gambling table.

No one dares accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel or other German government officials of similar hypocrisy, but the shock and stress they experienced on learning that information had been divulged to American intelligence agents have a theatrical air.  Calling them unprecedented acts, the German government has made much – too much – of the allegations that two German officials have given information and documents to, if not spied for, the United States.  Were crocodile tears shed?

The two officials are not major figures.  One of the accused is a German foreign intelligence service officer said to be spying for the CIA.  The other is a low-level employee of the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency.  He was arrested on suspicion of trying to spy for the Russians, and he admitted that he was actually selling to the U.S.  He is alleged to have sold 200 documents in a two-year period.

German reaction to these revelations was undoubtedly heightened because they occurred after the disclosure by Edward J. Snowden that the NSA was responsible for surveillance of the cell phone of Chancellor Merkel, a practice that President Barack Obama has now stopped.

The German government’s response has been excessive.  It has announced the expulsion of the Berlin station chief of the CIA.  This action appears rather severe in view of the fact that the German ministers of interior and finance both said the material provided to the U.S. was not important.  Indeed, Wolfgang Schauble, the finance minister, more correctly labeled the CIA “stupid.”  He may know that the CIA is in more real trouble with Congress than with Germany.  The Senate Intelligence Committee is dissatisfied with insufficient information provided it from the classified report of 6,200 pages about its detention and interrogation practices.

In addition, the German government has itself blundered.  It has persisted in demanding a “no spy” arrangement with the United States.  It thus repeats the mistake that most media have made and continue to make about no-spy arrangements – the so-called “Five Eyes” Agreement – between the U.S. and Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  This suggests that the five states will not spy on each other.  However, the reality is that though there may be some working bilateral arrangements with some countries, there are no legally binding arrangements.

That the U.S. does not have any binding no-spy arrangements is clear in a document issued on December 12, 2013 by the U.S. President’s Review Group on Intelligence.  It affirms, if in understated fashion, “It is important to emphasize that the United States has not entered into formal arrangements with other countries not to collect information on each other’s citizens. There are no such formal agreements.”

Spying in the modern world, as in the past, is an automatic part of the search for useful information.  The histories of all lands – China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome – are replete with exploits of spies.  Perhaps the best-known incident in ancient times is reported in the Book of Joshua.  There the woman Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, in Jericho assisted the Israelites in capturing the city.  Curiously, perhaps in a kind of ironic tribute to Israel, Germany set up Project Rahab as an organ of their defense intelligence agency.

All countries have spy agencies seeking information from friend and foe alike.  Has this discovery contradicted everything that is supposed to be trusting cooperation between the two countries of Germany and the U.S.?  In both the past and in modern times, Germany has been among the foremost countries involved as originator or recipient in the spying profession.  A few cases can be cited for their significance.

One Franco-German case still haunts the imagination of the Western world.  It concerns Captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused by the military court of espionage and convicted in 1894.  The guilty party was actually a fellow French officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, who spied for Germany and was the real perpetrator of the act of treason.  He gave the Germans confidential French plans for the new Howitzer gun and field artillery in the famous bordereau.  Though the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming, he was found not guilty at a military trial in 1898, and he fled to England, where he lived until 1923.  Not the least of his evil deeds was continuing to write anti-Semitic letters and articles for La Libre Parole, the popular but virulently anti-Semitic journal.

A more exotic spy for Germany was the dancer (sic) Mata Hari, member of the Frisian minority in the Netherlands.  The information she gave the Germans caused the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of French soldiers in World War I.  France executed her in October 1917.

The most surprising modern German spy was Gunter Guillaume, the personal assistant of then-West German Chancellor Willy Schmidt.  The intriguing play Democracy, by Michael Frayn, has recounted the story of Guillaume’s giving information in April 1974 to Communist East Germany, under the supervision of Markus Wolf, head of the Intelligence Administration of the East German Ministry for State Security.  It is not irrelevant that Vladimir Putin was the head of the KGB office in Dresden in the East German Republic.

Countless books, plays, and films have made us aware of espionage in Europe since the end of World War II.  Perhaps the most well known are the works by John Le Carré about British attempts to deal with Russian spying.  Indeed, Le Carré, in Smiley’s People, tells us of “Moscow Rules,” the rules of behavior developed during the Cold War that spies on both sides were to use.  On the British side, the familiar spies – Kim Philby, ironically employed in Section V counter intelligence of MI6; Guy Burgess; Donald Maclean; Anthony Blunt – all kept these rules.

Cooperation between the U.S. and Germany will continue on issues such as Iran, Ukraine, and above all on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  This association is currently being negotiated between the U.S. and the European Union and is aimed at removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors.

At home in the U.S., the CIA has been in the difficult position of balancing the security needs of the country, especially since 9/11, and interference in civil liberties.  Abroad, U.S. intelligence is active in 193 countries and various international organizations of valid interest.  The German reaction has gone too far.  The best comment on the CIA actions in Berlin might be to repeat the phrase attributed to Talleyrand: “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.