Wiretap disclosure not expected to badly harm U.S.-German relations

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 11:51 p.m.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will get over it — eventually.

The disclosure by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that NSA's signals intelligence operatives eavesdropped on Merkel's cell phone calls since 2002 will strain the U.S.-German relationship for a time, but the controversy will blow over, said Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy institute in Washington.

“It's an insult, but ... it's not a national security problem,” Sanderson said on Tuesday in an interview with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

Ugly as the practice of spying seems when it's yanked into the light of day, the espionage — even between allies — isn't likely to stop. Germany, with the world's fourth largest economy, holds too much sway over global affairs for the U.S. government to get its intelligence from German newspapers, Sanderson said.

“It's just too powerful a country to not want to know what they're doing,” said Sanderson, who plans to talk to high school and college students at separate events Wednesday. The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh organized Sanderson's visit for the 2013-14 International Youth Forum.

Disclosure of U.S. eavesdropping on world leaders might have uncovered bigger problems for the German government.

“The U.S. listening in on their conversations is the least of their worries if they're having unencrypted conversations,” Sanderson said. “If they're not using encrypted phones and she's always on her phone ... then the Russians are picking up every single thing.”

Germany is Europe's largest economy and a pillar of the Eurozone in which several countries' economies have teetered on the brink. A savvy, malicious investor could manipulate global markets to the tune of billions of dollars if he gleaned inside information from Merkel's conversation, Sanderson said.

“If people know what she's going to say at an upcoming conference, they can make decisions about the stock market that can really ruin entire countries,” Sanderson said. “That's dangerous. She shouldn't be doing that if that's the case.”

Sanderson compared the effects of Snowden's disclosure to the foreign policy setbacks that occurred when an American staff sergeant gunned down 16 Afghan civilians, or when someone desecrates a Quran.

“We lose a year of cooperation with the Pakistanis, the Muslim world is (angry) at us, we get embassies ransacked because (of) one Marine corporal,” Sanderson said. But eventually, international economic dependence takes over. “Countries are rational actors and they know they have to deal.”

The Obama administration has tried to minimize the damage of this disclosure, with the NSA saying that any information gleaned from Merkel's calls wasn't attributed to her by the time it reached the Presidential Daily Briefing, but was instead thrown into the aggregate intelligence assessment.

But some segment of the German people won't buy that line, and that's likely to lead to some level of distrust that outlasts the diplomatic kerfuffle, Sanderson said.

“Any population is going to think, ‘Oh no, Obama is actually on the phone listening to the chancellor talk to the French president.' That'll be damaging,” Sanderson said.

There's a line between spying on foreign governments and spying on foreign people, though Snowden's leaks have allowed countries including China to try to blur that line to their benefit. When, during a June summit in California, Obama tried to press Chinese President Xi Jinping on corporate espionage and cyber attacks originating in China, Jinping used Snowden's disclosures to make the United States appear hypocritical.

“We're complaining about them stealing information from GE, not from the CIA,” Sanderson said. Strange though it might seem, spying on the CIA “is accepted international practice. We spy. We all agree to that. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about the Chinese stealing GE's latest designs.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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