Countries agree to formal dialogue that will eventually establish ‘guiding principles’ in wake of NSA and CIA scandals
The White House has moved closer to a rapprochement with Germany after a series of spy scandals prompted Barack Obama to dispatch some of his most senior officials to Berlin.
In an unusual step, the US president sent his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and a senior counter-terrorism advisor to Germany to lay the foundations of a new, intelligence-sharing understanding between the two countries.
Following the meeting on Tuesday, both sides confirmed they had agreed to a formal dialogue which would lead, eventually, to a set of “guiding principles” over the relationship between its respective spy agencies. It is expected to be completed after the summer.
Germany has come to accept that it will not achieve the “no-spy agreement” it had sought, after the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency had monitored chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
However, Berlin wanted a major political gesture from Washington in recognition of the intense public anger over Snowden’s revelations, which were inflamed over the last month after it emerged there were two suspected US spies in the German government.
The CIA’s station chief was expelled from Berlin over the affair, which hardened Merkel’s resolve that the US needed to commit to curtailing its surveillance activities in her country.
Germany has been repeatedly snubbed by the US, which was concerned about the possible precedent of reaching a special intelligence agreement with a country other than the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand – the “Five Eyes” club of English-speaking countries with which the NSA closely collaborates.
Part of the problem was that Germany, which does not have surveillance capabilities equivalent to those of Five Eyes countries, did not have much to offer the US.
The controversy over CIA informants appears to have been a turning point. The Germans now hope the negotiation between the two countries – to be overseen by the respective chiefs of staff – will yield new set of principles that will guide future intelligence operations.
A senior German official said that while those principles were unlikely to rule out, for example, targeting foreign nationals or terror suspects in Germany, the language could prohibit the NSA targeting German politicians or the country’s intelligence agency, the BND.
“That would be an option,” said a senior German official briefed on the discussions, adding: “A ‘no-spy agreement’ is not an option – we understand the arguments and accept that.”
It was Obama, on a call to Merkel earlier this month, who offered to send his most senior White House officials to mend bridges.
The US delegation, which also included senior counter-terrorism official Lisa Monaco, met for four hours in Berlin on Tuesday.
The White House said afterward the talks had been “intensive”.
“The full range of issues was addressed, including intelligence and security matters,” the administration said in a statement. “Mr McDonough and Mr Altmaier agreed to set up a Structured Dialogue to address concerns of both sides and establish guiding principles as the basis for continued and future cooperation.”
A senior German official expressed satisfaction. “There is a willingness and a preparedness from the American side to tackle the problem in the most constructive way. That means reconsidering some aspects of intelligence sharing. That is something that I think we are very happy about.”