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In Germany, memories of repressive national spying inflamed by U.S. surveillance

January 29, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
In an address to parliament Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against U.S. and UK surveillance of its global allies. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner reports on how a history of repressive politics and intrusive intelligence has made the German people particularly sensitive to issues of privacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her own major address today to take aim at the United States’ surveillance programs. In her inaugural speech to Parliament, she said that the spying by the U.S. and Great Britain sows distrust and that — quote — “In the end, there will be less, not more security.”

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is in Berlin, and tonight she examines the strain that the NSA surveillance revelations created between old allies.

SGT. CHRIS MCLARREN (RET.), former U.S. Army surveillance intelligence analyst: What did we listen to? Basically, everything that went through the air.

MARGARET WARNER: A band of Germans joined former U.S. Army Sergeant Chris McLarren in 10-degree cold last Sunday to tour Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, a vital Allied listening post during the Cold War.

This hill above West Berlin was the first home base for high-tech signals surveillance in Germany. The spying operation had a clear target, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. And the purpose was a clear one: to prevent a war or to be ready for one.

SGT. CHRIS MCLARREN: So long as they listened and we listened, there was no surprise, no panic, no military overreaction. And here we all are.

MARGARET WARNER: McLarren, a former Army intelligence analyst here in the 1970s who never left Germany, says his tour attendance ticked up last summer, when documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread modern-day NSA surveillance in Germany and again after news that the NSA had monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

German citizens’ disproval of such government surveillance is now three times greater than in Britain or France. There’s a reason for that, McLarren told us as he escorted us to the ruined structure that passes for a guard shack.

SGT. CHRIS MCLARREN: I think in many ways, many Germans are very private people, and from their history and the kind of culture they have got, perfectly understandable.

MARGARET WARNER: Because they know what abuses that can lead to?

SGT. CHRIS MCLARREN: That’s true, OK? And I think that’s the great fear which they have.

MARGARET WARNER: That collective fear stemming from the Nazi-era Gestapo and the 40-year Cold War of East Germany’s secret police the Stasi hangs so heavy here that an angry Merkel compared the NSA surveillance to the Stasi.

Her visceral reaction was echoed Saturday night at the Prater Graten beer hall in Eastern Berlin by cardiologist Henrik Thomsen, who remembers the surveillance state that fell along with the Berlin Wall when he was just 19.

DR. HENRIK THOMSEN, Germany: We had it and we didn’t like it. So we don’t want it. We don’t want anybody trying to get to know what we do or what we think.

MARGARET WARNER: At the 100-year-old Clarchens Ballhaus that same night, social worker Andreas Klein was dismayed that America doesn’t grasp its allies’ anger over this or seem to care.

ANDREAS KLEIN, Germany (through translator): They don’t understand the fears in Europe, and specifically in Germany. Ever since 9/11, my impression is that America considers its priorities about security to be more important than considering our concerns about privacy.

MARGARET WARNER: To understand those fears and concerns, we went to visit the old Stasi headquarters in Far East Berlin. It amassed files on millions and persecuted, jailed and killed thousands. This one central office holds 60 miles of records, which tens of thousands of Germans use each year to research there or their families’ own invaded past.

The archive’s director, former East German dissident Roland Jahn, was once jailed for his beliefs. Yet he cautions against easy comparisons between NSA spying and Stasi era abuse.

ROLAND JAHN, Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archive (through translator): There’s a fundamental difference between an intelligence service in a democracy and a secret police in a dictatorship. The secret police use the information to manipulate and punish people to maintain the power of one party. Under democracy, the intention at least is to use the information to protect all citizens.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet he says indiscriminate of collection on everyone should raise red flags.

So is that what you mean, that if it’s never been abused, the vast collection shouldn’t be a problem?

ROLAND JAHN (through translator): This type of question has to be answered every single day, because the intelligence services have to be controlled in a democracy and you have to answer the question how much freedom can you limit to preserve security? What good is safety if we lose freedom? What good is freedom if we don’t have safety?

MARGARET WARNER: With the Cold War long over, it’s tempting to ask why Americans should be concerned about Germans’ unhappiness with an intelligence tool it now uses to combat new global threats against them both.

First, it’s a political problem. The U.S. needs Germany’s cooperation and trust on delicate issues, from nuclear negotiates with Iran to the allied drawdown from Afghanistan.

JOHN KORNBLUM, former U.S. ambassador to Germany: The need for active American political role, active American management, active American concern in Europe is just as great as it was 25 years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum is often called upon to explain America’s actions to the German public, as he did on a raucous TV talk show Sunday night built around a new interview with Edward Snowden.

Kornblum understands the reaction, but he thinks it’s overwrought.

JOHN KORNBLUM: It’s deeply emotional. And it of course means that the realities are often forgotten or covered over. In this case, of course, there’s a bit of hypocrisy because Germany depends upon this surveillance, as do most of our other European allies.

MARGARET WARNER: Wolfgang Bosbach, chair of the Parliament’s Interior Affairs Committee, concedes that NSA surveillance has helped German authorities foil terrorist plots. Yet even with his access to classified information, he says was caught off-guard by the scope of it.

WOLFGANG BOSBACH, German Parliament Interior Affairs Committee (through translator): The indiscriminate monitoring of an entire population, completely regardless of whether individuals or organizations were suspect of posing a threat to the security of the U.S.? Yes, that was an unpleasant surprise.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama promised Merkel the U.S. wouldn’t spy on her any longer, though when her top national security officials came to Washington late last year to push for a no-spy agreement covering German citizens more broadly, they came back empty-handed.

WOLFGANG BOSBACH (through translator): That still leaves 99.99 percent of Germans. There are 81 million people living here, but only one chancellor.

MARGARET WARNER: The Obama White House was concerned enough about reaction here to grant the president’s only interview after his recent NSA policy speech to Germany’s ZDF network. Kornblum believes the relationship will weather this.

JOHN KORNBLUM: I don’t think there is going to be a major long-term diplomatic rift. I think this is one of the short-term events that the United States and its European allies get into fairly often.

MARGARET WARNER: But Bosbach says Germans remain deeply disappointed in their longtime ally.

WOLFGANG BOSBACH (through translator): How does the U.S. government intelligence see Germany’s legitimate interests in protecting the basic rights of its citizens? It’s about the foundation of the relationship. It’s not a question of, how do the curtains look? It’s about the very foundation of the house.

MARGARET WARNER: One part of the foundation at risk, trillions in trade between the U.S. and Germany and Europe, much it built on U.S. communication and Internet firms kill Google, Yahoo! and Facebook.

Former Ambassador Kornblum has talked to some and says they are worried about losing business to European competitors.

JOHN KORNBLUM: If you’re considered to be a company whose interests are guided by the government of your country, and I’m doing a contract and I don’t want to risk that, then I will find somebody who is not.

MARGARET WARNER: But the most profound effect of all seems to be the German public’s realization that they have become enmeshed in a system that could invade their privacy more intimately than the ghost of their past could.

Thirty-two-year-old Frederick Fisher, whose Internet site Tame aggregates Twitter feeds, says the hashtags NSA and Snowden have led his site list for months, as Germans struggle to grasp the dark side of the Internet.

FREDERICK FISHER, Tame: It was such a new and exciting thing. And it had this empowering potential, so I think we were all like really shocked to see that it had become this like potential control and censorship apparatus.

MARGARET WARNER: Back on the frigid hilltop listening posts, consultants Michael Kreft and Andrew Weissenberg found it equally wary, and despite taking steps to hide their identity on the Internet powerless too.

MICHAEL KREFT, health care consultant: Actually, there is not much you can do. You know, I move. I have my mobile phone with me. It’s very easy to lose privacy.

ANDREW WEISSENBERG, health care consultant: If the people in your country want to know something about us, they will know it.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s one reality that Germans and Americans share.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with Chancellor Merkel on Friday in Berlin. The U.S. surveillance program is expected to be high on their agenda.