Obama, Merkel and the Spy Who Used Gmail

That necklace isn't bugged.

Angela Merkel is just about the most pro-American German chancellor the U.S. could hope for. How stupid, then -- there really is no better word -- for the U.S. to allow its intelligence agencies to make life so difficult for her.

Over the last week, German prosecutors have initiated investigations into the Central Intelligence Agency's attempts to recruit two low-level government bureaucrats of questionable value and even more questionable competence. (One offered classified information over Gmail.) As a result, Merkel is under pressure to stand up to the U.S. and has taken the unprecedented step of asking the CIA's representative in Berlin to leave the country.

Allies do, of course, spy on allies, and the U.S. has reason to spy on Germany. It is the dominant power in the European Union, and its contacts with Russia, China and Iran are of potential interest. For these and other reasons, a no-spy agreement similar to the one the U.S. has with the U.K. would probably be unworkable.

At the same time, there are broader U.S. interests that can be better served by not spying. Without German support, for example, it will be impossible to rally reluctant Austrians, Bulgarians, Cypriots, Greeks and others to agree to meaningful EU sanctions on Russia. German support is also crucial for a long-negotiated trade deal between the EU and the U.S.

In both these efforts, Merkel is essential. Most Germans oppose further sanctions on Russia; if Merkel is to support them, she will have to risk her domestic political capital. Meanwhile, some of Merkel's socialist coalition partners have seized on the spy scandal as evidence that the U.S. cannot be trusted sufficiently on data protection and privacy to enter the trade deal. Merkel remains among the pact's strongest proponents -- but again, the CIA has made it harder for her. The same is true of efforts to get German agreement to move North Atlantic Treaty Organization assets to Poland or the Baltic states.

The U.S. has had ample warning that trouble was brewing. A year ago, Germans were shocked to discover the U.S. National Security Agency was more active in their country than any other in Europe, with hundreds of agents trolling for data in Germany and worldwide, from bases across the country. In October 2013 came the revelation that the NSA had been tapping Merkel's mobile phone, causing further outrage.

The history of the Nazi period, and of the Stasi in communist East Germany, makes Germans especially sensitive to state intrusions on privacy. President Barack Obama promised in January to eavesdrop less on allied leaders. He also said the U.S. would ask "tough questions about what we should do" before spying on friends. It seems the CIA didn't get the memo.

The U.S. can't let intelligence incompetence jeopardize its economic and diplomatic priorities. The CIA and NSA can't be expected to rein themselves in. It's up to Obama to drive the message home, because whatever information the U.S. got from its two captured assets is unlikely to have been worth the cost.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net