Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Our Spies in Berlin Get Caught — Again

 

shutterstock_153049319For the second time in two years, the US and Germany are at loggerheads over American espionage activities in Berlin. Last year’s blowup came when American defector Edward Snowden disclosed that the NSA was bugging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. And just last week, German officials publicly disclosed that the CIA had recruited one and perhaps two employes of their intelligence service to spy for the US — a covert operation that so infuriated Merkel that she threw the CIA’s Berlin station chief out of her country.

Conservatives seem torn over how to think about all this. One the one hand, it’s fun to pile on whenever there’s a diplomatic kerfuffle like this one that exposes President Obama for the tone-deaf, clumsy oaf he really is. On the other hand, we want to back our intelligence services when they’re under attack, not only by German wimps but by American left-wing liberal sissies who despise the CIA and want to end all its covert operations everywhere.

Just for a moment, let’s put politics aside and talk about the business of intelligence:

In the real world of intelligence, it’s impossible to know everything that’s going on in the world. You can never have enough spies, enough satellites, enough bandwidth — or even enough competent analysts to make sense of what you collect. If you set out to know everything about everything, you wind up knowing nothing about anything. You have to select your targets very carefully. It’s a bit like shopping for dinner: You roll your grocery cart up and down the supermarket’s aisles, picking and choosing items as you go based on the shopping list you wrote out before leaving home. Sometimes an item catches your fancy that isn’t on your list, so, if you can afford to, you toss that extra item into your cart. But even if you’re a billionaire, you don’t buy the supermarket itself, have its entire stock delivered to your house, and then try to sort things out in your kitchen.

The most important question the head of a country’s intelligence service can ask is: What do we need to know to protect our national security? You literally make a list, with the most important issues at the top and the less important issues lower down. And because resources are limited — human and technical, as well as financial — you leave some things off the list even though they’d be nice to know; they’re simply not worth the time and effort to acquire. And, every so often, you leave something off the list simply because the political risk of using spies to acquire this information and getting caught just isn’t worth whatever it is you might learn.

Which brings us back to Germany. There is no leader in the world more sensitive to being spied on than Angela Merkel. She grew up in East Germany for crying out loud, and for half her life was a target of the STASI, that miserable country’s omnipresent, overbearing intelligence service. (If you want to get a realistic feel for how the STASI worked, watch the extraordinary German film The Lives of Others.) And remember, nearly half of today’s German voters also grew up with STASI agents lurking in their schools, their offices, their attics — and their bedrooms. No politician in Germany can be seen to tolerate espionage against her countrymen and hope to win these voters’ support ever again. That’s not only true if the spying comes from a friendly government, but especially true if it’s from a friendly government.

Did the CIA and the NSA learn anything useful from tapping Merkel’s phone? Undoubtedly. A far better question, however, is whether that intelligence was worth the risk of offending Europe’s most powerful leader, who also happens to be the most competent and reliable American ally on the continent. There’s also the opportunity cost to consider: Does the CIA already know everything we need to know about, say, ISIS in Iraq, Putin in Ukraine, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or Hamas in Gaza? I hope so, but I doubt it. How about the status of nuclear weapons in Iran, or in North Korea, or Pakistan? Or the true extent of China’s cyber-warfare offensive against leading US high-tech companies?

The world is a dangerous place — perhaps even more dangerous now than during the Cold War decades. We must have an intelligence service to help keep us safe, and there’s no such thing as a first-rate intelligence service that won’t do high-risk covert operations. From time to time, our spies will be caught red-handed; that’s just the risk we take. The gratitude we owe to the extraordinary men and women who run these risks — and pay the price when they fail — is incalculable.

The issue raised by these two blown operations in Germany isn’t the competence of our spies, but the judgment of our top-level intelligence officials. With so many governments and terrorist organizations that want to kill us — and so few allies left to help us stop them — why are we wasting so much effort, and blowing so much political capital, to spy on Angela Merkel?

 

Editor’s Note: Please welcome new Ricochet contributor Herbert E. Meyer. Herb served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. In these positions, he managed production of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates and other top-secret projections for the President and his national security advisers. He is widely credited with being the first U.S. Government official to forecast the Soviet Union’s collapse, for which he was awarded the U.S. National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, the Intelligence Community’s highest honor.

 

 

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  1. Flagg Taylor Member

    This seems exactly right to me. In addition to Merkel’s experiences, President Joachim Gauck was the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi archives after the fall of the Wall. Incidentally, I am co-editor of a new book (just released) called Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others. The book contains a fascinating interview with Gauck about the film.

    • #1
    • July 14, 2014, at 10:05 AM PDT
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  2. KC Mulville Inactive

    Welcome, Herb!

    Forgive me while I make a connection to my own little world. I’m a database designer, which means I deal in data all day long. When designing a system, I inevitably run across a client who wants everything. Whenever we design a webpage to allow users to enter their information, the client piles on useless requests, and always with the comment, “we may not need it now, but it might come in handy later.” Or they send the page to the lawyers, who always add on impossible requests because, “we may not need it now, but it might come in handy later.”

    Such clients/lawyers should be killed immediately, on the spot, with extreme prejudice. No death is too gruesome for such people.

    Information is no good unless it can be translated into knowledge. Data that isn’t turned into knowledge is just synaptic, brain-clogging noise that makes knowledge harder, not easier. It’s just cognitive clutter. 

    That urge to compile useless information is a pet peeve, as you can probably tell. Slowly I turn …

    • #2
    • July 14, 2014, at 10:11 AM PDT
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  3. Douglas Inactive

    I’m far more disturbed by the author’s attitude about spying on allies than the reputation of our spooks. The Germans were completely justified in their reaction, and were I in Merkel’s place, I’d have sent the US ambassador home. Stuff like this makes us look like a latter day Roman Empire. The arrogance and stupidity of these policies is astounding.

    • #3
    • July 14, 2014, at 10:13 AM PDT
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  4. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Herbert E. Meyer: [….] because resources are limited — human and technical, as well as financial — you leave some things off the list even though they’d be nice to know; they’re simply not worth the time and effort to acquire. And, every so often, you leave something off the list simply because the political risk of using spies to acquire this information and getting caught just isn’t worth whatever it is you might learn.

    Well said. And Germany’s unique antipathy toward espionage should certainly be considered. On the other hand, is any European nation as significant in world events? Germany seems a high-priority target for economic interests and the Russian problem.

    Spying on allies is a time-honored tradition. Should we make at least very limited espionage efforts in all nations? Or would anyone recommend spying only on enemies, potential enemies, and less reliable allies? Do all major regional players merit spying, of one degree or another, whether they are allies or not?

    America’s position is complicated by the major leaks in recent history which have made it impossible for our allies to trust us with information. Should we temporarily accept a less secure position while trying to regain that trust? Or must we ramp up our spying in ally nations to compensate for their increased reluctance to cooperate?

    • #4
    • July 14, 2014, at 10:33 AM PDT
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  5. Pilli Inactive

    “The issue raised by these two blown operations in Germany isn’t the competence of our spies, but the judgment of our top-level intelligence officials.”

    A colleague used to work at the NSA. He prepared information for the Bush administration. ALL of it was security related. When the new administration came in, the entire focus of his group changed and turned away from security and toward answering irrelevant questions. (I’m being vague because he was.)

    Could this also be happening at the CIA? Are the top level people being pressured for irrelevant information on our allies and not important information on our enemies?

    • #5
    • July 14, 2014, at 12:03 PM PDT
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  6. Jeffery Shepherd Member

    While this ain’t 1914 or 1939 I have no problem carefully watching the Germans. They are not UK-CAN-AUS-NZ. They have a history of playing too nice with our foes in the Middle East. After reunification nobody would have objected to us monitoring Germany as they attempted to absorb the east. No doubt we already had assets in place in the east. And, when should we have stopped and what might have given us pause not to? 9-11? I wonder what the folks we had working for us were working on. Perhaps monitoring folks we might consider enemies? That said, we should try harder not to get caught.

    • #6
    • July 14, 2014, at 12:30 PM PDT
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  7. George Savage Contributor

    Welcome to Ricochet, Herb. I agree with your position: we have bigger worries than Angela Merkel. A related question that I hope you can help me with: Is the NSA’s PRISM program another example of flawed cost-benefit analysis?

    It seems to me that NSA is collecting all possible information on essentially everyone because a) it can; b) the data might come in handy some day; and c) it is “fair” in that no profiling is involved. Wouldn’t NSA resources be better targeted to likely threats, or am I missing something important here?

    • #7
    • July 14, 2014, at 12:35 PM PDT
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  8. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer

    Hi, Pilli,

    You’re absolutely correct. The current leaders of our intelligence service seem to want everything about everything — and every one — so they won’t be caught blindsided by an attack. So it’s all collection all the time — and not enough analysis. There’s the glitch.

    Herb

    • #8
    • July 14, 2014, at 3:07 PM PDT
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  9. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer

    Hi, KC,

    Thanks for the welcome. As you know, the toughest question you can ask someone is “What do you want to know?” Mostly, they blather on for hours before getting down to details….

    • #9
    • July 14, 2014, at 3:28 PM PDT
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  10. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer

    Hi, George,

    Thanks for your welcome. You and several others have honed in on precisely the key point: Do the people who lead our intelligence service know what’s worth knowing, and what would be nice to know but isn’t crucial. During the Reagan years, we put a huge amount of effort into debating and deciding what we needed to know most — and then getting it. I’m not confident this sort of thing is being done now. Alas….

    • #10
    • July 14, 2014, at 5:12 PM PDT
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  11. Nick Stuart Inactive

    Isn’t the problem that we keep getting caught?

    • #11
    • July 14, 2014, at 5:21 PM PDT
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  12. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer

    Hi, Nick,

    Actually, no. The problem isn’t that we keep getting caught. Espionage is a complicated, obviously high-risk venture, so of course things will go wrong from time to time. Remember, most new businesses fail and Babe Ruth held the record for strike-outs as well as for home runs. In espionage, as in everything else, you just have to keep on trying….The problem with our efforts in Germany isn’t that they failed — we were caught at it — but that it just wasn’t worth the risk.

    • #12
    • July 14, 2014, at 6:30 PM PDT
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  13. jzdro Member

    Pilli:

    “The issue raised by these two blown operations in Germany isn’t the competence of our spies, but the judgment of our top-level intelligence officials.”

    A colleague used to work at the NSA. He prepared information for the Bush administration. ALL of it was security related. When the new administration came in, the entire focus of his group changed and turned away from security and toward answering irrelevant questions. (I’m being vague because he was.)

    Could this also be happening at the CIA? Are the top level people being pressured for irrelevant information on our allies and not important information on our enemies?

     Oh! Of course: It must be that the seemingly irrelevant stuff is of value for politics. So gather those data. Don’t waste too much effort on data related to – ha – US national security.

    • #13
    • July 15, 2014, at 7:45 AM PDT
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  14. The Party of Hell No! Inactive

    There are two possibilities which need evaluation. One: there are “patriotic Americans” running the NSA, they are sensitive and aware of their limits as Oath taking American bureaucrats and savvy as administrators to not undermine American values and foreign policy. The other is the administrators are not patriotic, have violated their oaths to defend and protect (There is the possibility they have no idea what the Constitution says, have never read the Constitution and cannot possibly determine what is and isn’t unconstitutional.) the Constitution and have the goods on every politician, bureaucrat and American citizen and are in the process of gathering “the goods” on every world politician, bureaucrat and citizen. They have lost their way – understanding their role is not the challenge to “have the goods on anyone [or everyone]” but to only have “the goods” on people attempting to destroy American national security. It seems someone administering the NSA is a psychopath and has a psychopathology of paranoia. If the current revelations about spying on Germany, spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee, along with the continuing new revelations from Edward Snowden’s data have done anything – it is to reveal the NSA is the latter.

    • #14
    • July 15, 2014, at 8:21 AM PDT
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  15. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Firstly, it’s very good to have you with us, and thank you for your service, sir. 

    Flagg Taylor:

    This seems exactly right to me. In addition to Merkel’s experiences, President Joachim Gauck was the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi archives after the fall of the Wall. Incidentally, I am co-editor of a new book (just released) called Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others. The book contains a fascinating interview with Gauck about the film.

     Do you agree that the film was highly realistic? I got the impression that the lack of redundancy that allowed the spy to get away with not reporting what he knew (and the routine lack of redundancy that allowed him to believe that this was the case) struck at the heart of what made the system effective. I thought it was an excellent film, and that it was the better for the reduction in the awfulness of the Stasi because it made them seem more plausible, but that it remains worth noting that the real thing was larger and more effective than the relatively light touch of the film.

    • #15
    • July 15, 2014, at 9:02 PM PDT
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  16. Flagg Taylor Member

    Do you agree that the film was highly realistic? I got the impression that the lack of redundancy that allowed the spy to get away with not reporting what he knew (and the routine lack of redundancy that allowed him to believe that this was the case) struck at the heart of what made the system effective.

    The lack of redundancy is a legitimate criticism. Another one is the lack of compartmentalization–Wiesler performed tasks that were often given to different people. However, can we say for certain that the way the film portrays this operation could never have happened? No. As I have learned in my conversations with Czech dissidents and other scholars, there were holes in the system. It didn’t always function as it was supposed to. There were inefficiencies, mistakes, etc. So critics of the film like Anna Funder and Jens Gieseke go too far in my view. We deal with these criticisms in our intro, but also see the essay by a British historian of the GDR, Peter Grieder and the interview with Gauck.

    • #16
    • July 16, 2014, at 6:26 AM PDT
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  17. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer

    Hi, James,

    First, thanks for your kind words of welcome, and about my service. Others did much, more more than I. Yes, the film was realistic. It conveyed the feel and the mood of living in a totalitarian state extraordinarily well. And remember, totalitarian states aren’t just evil — they’re incompetent. We must avoid the temptation to always assume that our adversaries are geniuses; they make as many stupid mistakes as we make. I’ll never forget the day we discovered that in Moscow the Soviet Ministry of Health had opened a cardiology clinic on the top floor of a five-story walk-up.

    • #17
    • July 16, 2014, at 10:37 AM PDT
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