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obama merkel

The crisis between Germany and the United States, sparked by the discovery of CIA informants within the German BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst, the Federal Intelligence service) and within their Ministry of Defense, brings to our attention once again the ethical problem of whether it is legitimate for a “friendly” intelligence service to seek news and sources within the institutions of an allied nation. In this particular case, both countries are part of NATO and therefore share information, political initiatives, military instruments and whatever else is needed in the fight against common enemies. It could be argued therefore that the CIA shouldn't have stolen information from a friendly nation and that their actions are ethically inappropriate and contrary to the principles of collaboration which are founded on reciprocal trust and on fair play. The German-American crisis began in October 2013 when the statements of Edward Snowden revealed that many European countries were the object of wire-taps by the American NSA. Among the lines that were tapped there was the personal mobile telephone of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Successively, with the unveiling of a network of spies within the German institutions, the supposed deviance of CIA's information activity became the object of a full-blown diplomatic incident between the two nations.

Superfluous questions

The first question that comes to mind is: Is it wrong for the CIA to recruit sources in order to intercept information from Germany? The answer is that the CIA is doing its job, it gathers any and all information that can be of interest to the US government and – while carrying out this activity – overlooks the fact that the target of its information-gathering is an allied nation. Furthermore, in this specific case, Germany is an important country both on the industrial level and on the financial one. There are bilateral commercial interests in place. It has a prime role in the relationship with the eastern European countries and is the steering force of the European Union. Does this justify the CIA's interest? The answer is, of course, yes. So where did the CIA err? Only in the fact that, clumsily, its information network was uncovered due to the scarce professionalism of its station chief.

The second question is the following: When the CIA set out to gather information from Germany, did they do so secretly, thus disregarding the guidelines issued by their President Barack Obama? The answer is that any intelligence service like the CIA receives input (requests for information) from its nation's political system and thus acts to fulfill such requests. When, in October 2013, the President of the United States Barack Obama declared publicly that he wasn't aware that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone was being wire-tapped, he was substantially lying. It is hard to believe that Obama, when faced with information coming from Germany, has never asked himself how the NSA and CIA could come to know so much about the decisions of Angela Merkel or about the activities of the German secret services and Ministry of Defense.

Every piece of information that lands on the tabletop of a top political figure must be coupled with an evaluation on that information's degree of reliability and on its origin, be it of technical nature (wiretap or other) or humint (the human sources). This is a rule; a 'modus operandi' that is applied universally; the USA and Germany are no exception. It is on the basis of the reliability of an information that a politician plans his or her actions. In other words, the CIA receives requests for information, it elaborates the best operational way to obtain such information (here lies their autonomy), it then relays the information to the applicant and gives the information a degree of reliability (thus mentioning the method used to gather the info). Barack Obama surely knew, at least in part, where the information was coming from, regardless of whether or not John Brennan, who was designated CIA head by Obama himself, informed his commander-in-chief, as could be the case in the scope of a fiduciary relationship between the two individuals, about the source of the information.

Angela Merkel has tried to bring the issue on the ethical level and has even argued that such information-gathering is a useless splurge of energy but the events at hand should be evaluated through different parameters. It is true that, with the scourge of terrorism running rampant, intelligence services should have different, more important priorities. But it is also true that the CIA, together with the Russian and Chinese secret services, have a global outreach. The other intelligence services are geographically more limited, while the CIA has operatives all around the globe; not only in the countries where there is a primary informative interest, but in “friendly” countries as well, Germany included. The CIA can afford to control and penetrate, intelligence-wise, even an allied nation. It has the money, the personnel and the technical capacity to do so.

john brennan
The director of CIA, John Brennan

The Station Chief

It is thus time to evaluate the actions of the Station Chief (some intelligence services use the term “antenna” or “Center Chief”) of the CIA in Berlin, the person that has sparked the crisis between Germany and the United States.

The figure of the Station Chief is one of the most recurrent in all intelligence services. When the circumstances are favorable (as is almost always the case), an intelligence service will deploy its representative in a foreign country. This is sometimes a reciprocal deployment; a representative of each of the two countries will be deployed in the other nation. So where is this person physically deployed? Generally, in his nation's embassy; most of the time it is the most practical and advantageous solution: it gives the representative an operative front (only outside of the embassy itself, because everybody within knows what he/she is up to), it allows the person to associate with other diplomats when social events come up (this eases contacts with other foreigners and other 'representatives'), it provides the representative with a protection system for himself, his documents and equipment which only a diplomatic seat can supply. Mostly, it provides the 'representative' with a safe environment for his person. The Station Chief, as is the case with the one in Berlin, has a diplomatic status and, if discovered, does not risk being arrested but, at the most, he will be expelled from the country.

One could marvel at the inherent contradiction in carrying out information-gathering against the country where one stays while that country knows what you are up to. The Station Chief is generally a person that fills the requisites and abides by the set limitations; he is surely the object of information-gathering by the local counter-espionage. There is an unwritten rule that allows that person a degree of freedom in his/her activity (especially if he/she is operating in a “friendly” country), but always within set limits. The Station Chief knows this, as does the country hosting him/her. The Station Chief should dedicate his/her activity solely to the collaboration with the local intelligence service, although both sides know that this is not the case. The Station chief carries out his/her operative activity, moves autonomously seeking useful information, exchanges information with his fellow nationals, with foreigners and (very cautiously) with the locals as well. All of this happens within limits that are dictated by the susceptibility of his counterpart.

At times Station Chiefs are just a decoy for the local intelligence services. They dedicate themselves solely to the official part of the collaboration while other individuals, whom are less-known to the local intelligence apparatus, carry out the real espionage. This is a recurrent scenario for some intelligence services and a rule of thumb for global services such as the CIA. Generally, inside an American embassy, there aren't just CIA operatives (some of which are known and others aren't), but also representatives of other structures such as NSA (for intercepting conversations, etc.) and sometimes the FBI or DEA (if we are talking drug trafficking or other forms of criminal organizations), the DIA (in the office of the military attache'), and members of the armed forces (if there is a military contingent stationed in the country – as is the case with Germany). Finally, there are individuals that are deployed in structures outside the embassy, such as airline carriers, companies, businesses, etc.

Jonathan Pollard
Jonathan Pollard

One-way return trip

The CIA Station Chief in Berlin has a double fault: that of getting caught and that of not using at best the informative resources available other than his own person.

Does this consideration postulate a negative judgment on the efficiency of the CIA personnel? Not necessarily, even though we could express a consideration that is true for all intelligence services, not just the American one: The “comfortable” places (where there is little risk and the quality of the life of the Station Chief and his family is higher; where social chores outweigh operative duties) are generally occupied by 'well-recommended' individuals. This is sometimes a hindrance to the professionalism of the designated operative. The poor Berlin Station Chief thought that he could live out his three years (this is generally the span of time that a Station Chief spends in any given place) in absolute tranquility. Then there came along the wiretaps, the Snowden revelations, the issue of Angela Merkel's mobile phone; all of these factors drove the spotlight of the local intelligence services on the Station Chief's conduct. Even then he didn't notice, he noticed too late, or he wasn't able to use his professional qualities at best and was thus presented with a one-way return trip to Langley.

What lingers is the annoyance of a country that finds itself the object of informative penetration by an ally and friend. The sort of annoyance that Angela Merkel – whom has lived in East Germany under the pressure of the infamous Stasi (Ministerium fur Staaatssicherheit – Ministry for the Security of the State) – knows all too well. The United States are also in touch with that same feeling, following the case of Jonathan Pollard, who was passing information to the Mossad and who, after being caught, sits confined inside a US prison since 1986. Lately, following the revelations of Snowden, it transpired that the CIA too was spying on the activity of the Israeli government. There seems to be a possibility now that Pollard be finally set free. A sort of 'do ut des' in order to wipe away the reciprocal 'annoyance'. Thus, as is now clear, everyone spies on everybody else. It isn't an ethical problem, seen as in the world of espionage there aren't friends or enemies, but just interests. What really counts at the end of the day is who is able to guarantee better results to their nation's interests abroad.