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By Elizabeth Pond
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has now given her July press conference and vanished into the Tyrolean Alps on her usual summer vacation free of public politics. Her trip highlights another way in which Germany lags behind the United States in exploiting computers' omniscience about today's cyber-man.
After two months of second-guessing Edward Snowden's whereabouts, prospects, and memory sticks, every compulsive newspaper reader is an expert on the National Security Agency's (NSA) electronic haystack as well as a few of its found needles. And every tweep knows that Germany's poor Federal Intelligence Service (BND) has neither the technology, the budget, nor the legal right to snoop as voraciously as the NSA. This sets it apart from the British intelligence services, which get their share of the American megadata haystack, and the French equivalent of NSA, which aspires to Washington's level of cyber sovereignty.
What is less well-known in the United States, though, is that German politicians also lag behind the ability of their American counterparts to harvest the self-revelations of millions of voters on social media in order to get each potential sympathizer to the polls. That—along with Germany's cost-free proportional political advertising on public television and greater campaign role of parties over individual candidates' personalities—explains why Europe's most powerful woman can afford a breather a short nine weeks before her next general election.
She can just ignore the media furor over Snowden's titillations, for example. She doesn't need to stay in Berlin either to parry rivals' daily denunciations of her data-protection policy or whip up a final mobilization of disaffected stay-at-homes to get out and vote for her after all. She can live out her Christian Democrats' "no experiments" credo by simply tending to her hiking instead of launching new initiatives and a manic drive to raise US-level campaign billions. And all predictions show her winning re-election anyway.
The two ways Germany lags behind the United States electronically—in spying and election campaigning—intersected briefly in the days preceding Merkel's retreat. The opposition Social Democrats—who don't have many issues they can champion after Merkel's growing cooption of traditional left themes in her eight years as chancellor—tried to make hay of the NSA's spying on EU headquarters that Snowden revealed. Why hadn't Merkel stopped the very unfriendly surveillance by an ally, or if she hadn't known about it, why not?
And why, asked Der Spiegel magazine further by innuendo, was Germany's BND so deferential toward America's NSA?
Merkel initially responded to the Snowden leaks by saying that she was herself putting questions to Germany's long-time protectors in Washington. She added that she was grateful for the help of NSA intercepts (no details provided) in thwarting several terrorist plots in Germany and was giving the United States ample opportunity to clarify its clandestine bugging of European Commission computers. As the opposition Social Democrats criticized her for not responding robustly to the affront, though, she pointed out that Germans were especially aware of the dangers because of their experience with the Nazi and East German Communist thought police. Merkel then called on the European Union to write a strict code of data protection to defend the Europeans' fundamental principle of privacy. Spiegel dismissed her eight points as placebos.
Then at her summer press conference, Merkel claimed prior ignorance about the extent of American spying. This was an unusual defense for a head of government, the German media noted critically.
As for Spiegel, it could unearth nothing more incriminating than the BND's keenness to earn American praise and its hosting of U.S. intelligence agents on several of its premises, in continuation of old cold-war practices. The weekly's modest exposé teaser read, "German intelligence cooperates closely with the NSA and even uses spy software provided by the U.S." When BND President Gerhard Schindler flew to Washington in late April, he "repeatedly expressed an 'eagerness' to cooperate more closely with the NSA," Spiegel divulged after looking at some of Snowden's top-secret files. Schindler's delegation met with "senior members" of the NSA Special Source Operations, "one of the most secretive groups within the intelligence community," the weekly continued. The German team was looking for "guidance and advice" and wanted to "strengthen and expand bilateral cooperation."
Beyond that, Spiegel stated that the American XKeyscore surveillance program captured 180 million of Germany's 500 million monthly data sets for the NSA in December 2012. Its main point, however, was less the substance of the spying than the conclusion that if German intelligence agencies too have access to these data—and Spiegel offered no evidence that they do--then Merkel's "government could hardly claim that it had no knowledge of the Americans' vigorous data acquisition activities."
So far opinion surveys suggest that German voters, despite their history, are disinclined to make a major issue of Washington's spying on its close allies or Merkel's professed ignorance about the U.S. "Prism" operation. When asked explicitly this week, 70 percent of the population disapproved of the German government's handling of the American snooping. Yet voters' main concerns lie in such economic issues as the eventual bill they may get for keeping the eurozone alive—or how long they must continue to pay a solidarity surtax to help bring East Germans up to West German living standards 23 years after unification.
The upshot is that despite widespread misgivings about Merkel's handling of data protection, the chancellor remains far and away the most popular German politician. Some two-thirds of the population approve of her. Surveys show that 42 percent of voters would choose her
Christian Democratic Union and sister Christian Social Union if the election were held this week—their highest ranking in the past four years. [ed: This would in fact probably produce a majority of parliamentary seats because of the votes wasted on parties that don't get the 5 percent minimum, but that's too complicated to explain here] Their liberal government partners' 4 percent in this week's surveys gives the center-right a total 46 percent and puts it well ahead of the 39 percent of its likely center-left coalition rival of Social Democrats (25 percent) and Greens (14 percent). As a fallback, should the Liberals fail to get over the 5 percent parliamentary hurdle on September 22, Merkel could always go back to a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats as her junior partner.
Any U.S. presidential candidate who went trekking incommunicado nine weeks before Election Day in the midst of an eavesdropping scandal would doom his or her chances. Any German chancellor named Angela Merkel can do so and come back to face her 56 scheduled appearances in late August with the certainty of winning re-election. There are advantages to being a double electronic laggard.
EP is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification.
[Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum]