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Sunday, October 23, 2016

By Matthew Schofield, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BERLIN — News Wednesday that Germany is investigating new allegations that the United States bought secrets from a German official — the second such probe to become public in a week — delivered another blow to U.S.-German relations over what is now a year-old scandal of American spying on an ally.

“The American secret services are completely out of control,” said Hans-Christian Stroebele, the most senior member of Germany’s parliamentary committee investigating the National Security Agency’s activities in Germany. “They seem to think they are allowed to do everything, even in Germany.”

The most recent allegations revolve around NSA efforts to determine what Stroebele’s committee has learned. Last week, German authorities reportedly arrested a member of Germany’s foreign intelligence service for allegedly passing documents to the United States about Stroebele’s committee. Wednesday, the focus of the new investigation was a German military official.

Stroebele said the new spying efforts — a year after it was revealed that the United States had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and that the NSA was sweeping up millions of emails — would prove costly to what had been a strong relationship between the nations.

“Mistrust should be the order of the day,” he told McClatchy in a phone interview. “We have to be far more cautious than we used to be. I personally had always assumed that they do all kinds of things all over the world, but that they do them in Germany goes beyond what I imagined.”

By now, though, most Germans thinking about American activities on German soil imagine the worst. It’s been just more than a year since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked documents indicating the United States was routinely sweeping up and storing the electronic communications of millions of Germans.

It’s been nine months since Germans learned that among the cellphones being tapped was Merkel’s beloved “handy,” or cellphone. Only a month ago, a German prosecutor announced an official criminal investigation into the NSA’s spying on Germans in Germany.

And now, in the space of five days, investigations launched into whether the United States bought secrets from two German government insiders.

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said it’s clear that under American law, the NSA has the legal right to spy on anything to do with U.S. foreign policy. But if it did, she said, it’s disturbing.

“It’s a sign of a ‘collect it all’ mindset that’s across the board, and that doesn’t take into consideration the damage that can be done to international relations,” she said, noting that while it might be legal under U.S. law it certainly is not under German law.

Patrick Keller, the coordinator for foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a Berlin think tank, said Wednesday that it’s difficult to see exactly why an American spy agency would devote so much time to spying on an ally.

“A main reason for the German irritation and disappointment in this matter is exactly that we cannot understand the U.S. motivation,” he wrote in an email response to questions. “My personal take is that all this intelligence work (in terms of data collection) has become detached from political control and political sensibilities. It has become an end in itself and as such, it harms U.S. interests rather than protects them.”

After all, experts say it’s unlikely the United States gained much from the reported activities. Germany has an active and free press. The NSA paid for secret documents from a parliamentary NSA committee known for leaking its secrets. Beyond that, German intelligence is known for sharing information with U.S. intelligence agencies, such as the Syrian phone calls the Germans intercepted last year when news broke of a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.

And, of course, Germany is a member of NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance. The U.S. and German militaries have worked together for decades, most recently in Afghanistan.

Stroebele noted that Germany willingly hosts American military and intelligence facilities, including some facilities that Germany partly funds. There has never been a lack of a willingness to cooperate.

“To abuse your hosts in this way is something the federal government cannot tolerate,” he said. “The more that is uncovered, the more we get the impression that there is an entire swamp still to uncover.”

Stroebele’s committee will meet in an emergency session Thursday to discuss the proper reaction to the latest news.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards