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Broaden the German-U.S. Dialogue About Snooping

Trust needs to be rebuilt between the United States and Germany, writes Jane Harman and Volker Perthes. As allies and democracies, the U.S. and Germany can do this, with some imagination and effort, and the relationship can be improved as a result. Here's how.

Germans are not naive: They know that states spy, and that attempts to listen in to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conversations were to be expected. But they didn’t expect that the United States would do this, for a decade.

Trust needs to be rebuilt. We must go beyond an exchange of accusations and counter-accusations over this issue. As allies and democracies, the United States and Germany can do this, with some imagination and effort, and the relationship can be improved as a result.

From a U.S. perspective, the specific alleged offense — listening to Merkel’s cell phone conversations — has been remedied. President Barack Obama says the U.S. government is not doing this and will not do this.

From a German perspective, however, a host of questions remain. Most relate to why the NSA, as it seems, had to spy on Merkel of all people. Didn’t the president recognize her as an important ally by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011?

The chancellor’s own public comments following “cell-gate” have been measured. She obviously views the issue within the framework of a bilateral relationship between two countries, not two individuals.

Both Merkel and her prospective Social-Democratic coalition partners are pragmatic, down-to-earth decision-makers. They are unlikely to let hard feelings get in the way of their countries’ strong shared interests.

But nonetheless, the situation weighs more heavily among German policymakers and citizens than Americans may realize. Germans tend to be more emotional about bilateral relations with the United States than Americans are. That reflects history, and the relative importance of the relationship.

So damage has been done. And there is no shortage of people willing and eager to drive a wedge between Berlin and Washington for political reasons – particularly in capitals that still see the Western alliance as a threat.

The challenges from a turbulent international environment are important reasons why there needs to be a mechanism to assure that both our countries conduct necessary intelligence operations in an atmosphere of restored mutual trust.

The intelligence partnership is important for both sides. German agencies have been able to prevent acts of terrorism thanks to intelligence they get from and share with the United States. There is a solid relationship between the two countries and that shouldn’t be put at risk. To a degree that few outside the intelligence community realize, it has globalized at a rapid pace in the last decade because of the fight against terrorism.

Legislators in both Washington and Berlin have a strong role — which may need strengthening along with technological developments — in overseeing their respective intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Members of the intelligence committees of the House and the Senate, as well as members of the Parliamentary Control Body and the so-called G10 Commission of the German Bundestag, are often highly knowledgeable. They understand the rationale for intelligence and at the same time are committed to civil liberties — key ingredients of our liberal democratic orders.

First, there is the question of who knows what. Members of legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic should have more complete access to details of certain classified programs. In the United States, congressional committee work is often staff-driven and so might not reflect the political experience of legislators. This should be corrected.

In Germany and some other countries, there is access for members but less so for staff. Increasing staff access makes sense. In both cases, it’s important to have informed, supported elected officials.

Second is the question of jurisdiction. Authorization committees in Congress and budget committees in Germany should have more information about, and authority over, the intelligence budget. No one expects intelligence agencies to detail every dollar and euro — but without greater transparency it’s hard to be accountable.

Third, exchange of information among allies is essential, and will increase overall capacity for oversight.

Realistically, a subgroup of legislators — not entire committees — might meet at regular intervals, perhaps once a year. Discussions could cover the different approaches to intelligence tasks that governments now face; data protection and privacy and the relationship between security and essential civil liberties. They could also discuss how to work more closely with executive branches that often have more resources and more technical expertise.

Members in the United States and Germany would find out that they have many common concerns. Opening the exchange by including parliamentarians, data-protection commissioners and experts would also make it easier to reach a broader consensus about what is — and what is not — permissible among friends.

The goal here is to leverage resources to prevent harm to both of our countries.

The United States has long sought to make oversight of its intelligence democratically accountable and based on sound legal principles. So has Germany, where parliamentary oversight committees are grounded in the constitution.

The alternative is enacting different national regimes for privacy protection — which is counterproductive. National regimes will obstruct commerce, and damage the international cooperation on intelligence and law enforcement that is essential.

But such efforts will not hinder terrorists and criminals — who know that ones and zeroes do not respect national boundaries.

This article first appeared on Reuter's The Great Debate.

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting Europe’s relations with the rest of the world through scholars-in-residence, seminars, international conferences and publications. These programmatic activities cover wide-ranging topics include: European energy security, the role of the European Union and NATO, democratic transitions, and counter-terrorism, among others. The program also investigates comparatively European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including migration, global governance, and relations with Russia, China and the Middle East.  Read more