Angela Merkel's Big Spying Problem

Why the BND Scandal is Really Bad for Chancellor Merkel

Two years after stories of the NSA eavesdropping on German citizens and politicians, including Chancellor Merkel herself, made huge waves and really pissed off a lot of people, a new spying scandal promises to stir up a new wave of German outrage (a rage-wave?). Except this time, the agency taking the blame isn’t the NSA - at least not directly. It’s the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence service.

According to media reports, the BND has been helping the NSA eavesdrop on European businesses, citizens and politicians who were living on German soil and communicating using German telecommunications networks. The activity might have begun as early as 2008. This is despite a 2013 statement by a pissed-off Merkel (“spying on friends – that’s a no-go”) saying that eavesdropping on allies was really not a nice thing to do.

Except if you’re the one doing the spying, I guess.

Nobody’s quite sure why the NSA wanted  the information, but the BND most likely agreed in order to get the NSA’s help in tracking terror suspects in Germany. It’s also not yet clear who within the German government knew what, and when. It’s possible that the current Minister of the Interior lied to a parliamentary committee that was investigating the NSA scandal about his own knowledge of NSA activity.

The BND Affair, as it’s being called in the media, is just heating up. There is a lot to figure out, and the ultimate consequences will depend on who within the government knew about the spying, and whether Chancellor Merkel herself knew about and condoned the alleged activity.

Even with very much yet uncertain, the BND Affair threatens to turn into the largest scandal of Merkel’s tenure, and one of the biggest political threats of her career.

Teflon Politicians

I learned during one of my high school history classes that Ronald Reagan was often referred to as the Teflon President. No matter the scandal – selling weapons to Iran and rigging bids for big housing projects, among others – Reagen himself emerged relatively unscathed.

I’m not sure if Teflon exists in Germany, but if it does then Chancellor Angela Merkel surely sprinkles it on her clothing every day. For the past 9 years, she has been nearly untouchable. Her 2013 election victory (third in a row) was her most dominant yet, with her CDU/CSU party coming within a hair’s breath of an absolute majority. The main opposition party, the left-center SPD, has been polling 15 points below her for the past several years.

Chancellor Merkel is already the third-longest serving German Chancellor since the Second World War. The consensus in Berlin is that if she chooses to run for a fourth term in 2017, she will almost certainly win and cement her legacy as one of the most powerful politicians in modern German history. Not too shabby for a trained scientist born and raised in communist East Germany.

What explains the success? I think there are two reasons. First, she steals her opponents’ best ideas. How else to explain the CDU attracting both economic liberals from the rightist FDP, and left-leaning progressives from the SPD? And second, she avoids scandal. Much like Obama in the USA, Merkel has been relatively immune from political scandals. For the past decade, Merkel has been able to get credit for popular political issues while avoiding the kinds of official and personal scandals that doom governments elsewhere. I mean, at least she’s not riding motorcycles to visit her lover.

Challenges to Merkel

Which brings us back to the BND affair. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal the issue of electronic eavesdropping and data privacy is in Germany. Germans are really, really protective of their privacy. So protective that Google stopped updating its Street View service due to widespread privacy concerns, and that the German Economics Minister has stated cautious support of a plan to split Google in half.

For much of her career, Merkel has managed to steer clear of exactly this type of scandal. Not only that, but it gives the SPD an issue with which to hammer Merkel over the next couple of years in the run-up to 2017. If it turns out that Merkel, or even some of her close advisors, knew about what was going on, the SPD is going to have a really big hammer.

The CDU and the SPD are currently partners in a Grand Coalition, meaning they are both part of the government. But this hasn’t stopped SPD functionaries from openly criticizing Merkel and the CDU. SPD General Secretary Yasmin Fahimi said that “if the grave and serious allegations prove true, then one must clearly say that the oversight of the Federal Chancellery over the BND has failed miserably.” The Green Party has also entered the mix, with First Parliamentary Chairwoman Britta Haßelmann saying that she wanted to make the “lack of responsibility” within the Federal Chancellery a more prominent issue.

These kinds of statements have provoked angry responses from, among others, CDU Member of Parliament Patrick Sensburg, who says that “the SPD seems to have given up on the normal form of professional restraint.” Stephan Mayer, spokesperson for domestic issues, said that “a strong collaboration between Security agencies and a close information exchange is urgently needed for the fight against terrorism.”

You can already see the outlines of SPD election slogans: “the CDU allows the BND to spy on its friends and its neighbors, and the SPD will not.” The CDU answer, that these measures were necessary to keep everyone safe, will not be satisfying to German voters – particularly if the BND abused its authority and collected information that wasn’t relevant to terrorism investigations.

The full implications of the BND Affair will only become clear over the next few weeks, as details about individual culpability become clear. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière, is forced to resign due to issues surrounding his (possibly untruthful) testimony to a parliamentary committee about the original NSA issue. He also ran the Federal Chancellery, which oversees the BND, from 2005 to 2009, which is when the spying program started.

The main takeaway: don't rile the Germans up when it comes to data security. And also: if you're going to spy on your allies, you'd best not get caught.