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For 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.