Germany should offer political asylum to Snowden

Berlin is angry, but is it angry enough to take the right step?

July 12, 2014 6:00AM ET
US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks to European officials via videoconference during a parliamentary hearing on improving the protection of whistleblowers, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, eastern France, on June 24, 2014.
Frederick Florin / AFP / Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not someone prone to flying off the handle or staging temper tantrums. On the contrary, her patience, caution and aplomb are legendary. And as the revelations about U.S. espionage in Germany mounted over the past year, many Germans grew fed up with her deference and equanimity. There appeared to be no limit to the disrespect that Germany was willing to endure at the hands of its longtime ally across the Atlantic.

But by expelling the Central Intelligence Agency’s Berlin station chief on Thursday in retaliation, Merkel finally called out Washington for its arrogant, intrusive treatment. Though unprecedented in postwar transatlantic relations, this dramatic step is merely symbolic. The substantive option Germany should — and indeed still can — take is to offer National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden political asylum, as opposition politicians have been demanding for some time now. This act shouldn’t be understood as a weightier missive in a game of diplomatic tit-for-tat, but rather as a concrete, constructive step in the direction of addressing the problem of the world’s powers’ out-of-control data gathering at both the diplomatic and private level. It’s high time that the European Union, led by Germany, took the lead on restoring the civil liberties of ordinary citizens robbed of them during the war on terror. Nothing would underscore this priority more clearly than rewarding Snowden with a safe home.

Granting him asylum would also prompt a long-overdue readjustment in the transatlantic relationship, which the expulsion of a single spy chief — a highly conventional way of marking displeasure — won’t do. Certainly, this move by Merkel will ruffle feathers. The U.S. obviously takes for granted that the Federal Republic is much the same humble vassal it was during the Cold War, when it relied on Washington for security and much of its foreign-policy direction. Indeed, “West Germany’s” sovereignty was limited by law, and in addition to more than 200,000 U.S. troops on its territory, the Western allies occupied West Berlin until 1990. And Germans were rightly grateful for the likes of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Air Bridge, NATO’s nuclear umbrella, unification and even, one could say, democracy as such.

Both Germany and the U.S. have been slow to readjust to the post–Cold War reality of a fully sovereign Germany that has become the de facto leader of the EU — an entity with a population and economy that dwarf that of the U.S. But make no mistake, both Germany and the EU share responsibility for this state of affairs. They have both been far too lethargic about establishing independent, clearly formulated foreign affairs and security policies. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU is still a toddler in the world of geopolitics, and Germany’s foreign policy is so vaguely defined that insiders there quip that “Germany doesn’t even have a foreign policy.”

This is all the more regrettable, as Germany and the EU have principles and precedents for foreign and security policies that could look very different from those of the U.S. in the 21st century, namely ones based largely, though not exclusively, on strategic diplomacy, trade-and-aid, conflict prevention, human rights and democratization. Of course, this kind of orientation couldn’t exclude effective military clout — or they’d remain dependent and beholden to the U.S., just the position they’re struggling with right now.

Providing political asylum to Snowden would mean so much more than the harmless move to expel the CIA station chief in Berlin. It would spark a reassessment of U.S. foreign policy since the war on terror began.

Of course, Germany has occasionally tacked an independent course from the U.S. in recent years, mostly notably in 2003 when Gerhard Schröder’s center-left administration not only declined to partake in the U.S. invasion of Iraq but openly criticized the Bush administration. The dimensions of the acrimony that were provoked between Berlin and Washington shouldn’t be forgotten. This current diplomatic tiff is going to have to escalate a long, long way to measure up.

Indeed, Merkel’s move is more of a rap on the knuckles in comparison. What seems to have prompted it is not so much the American intelligence operations themselves — the tapping of Merkel’s cellphone, NSA surveillance of German burghers, the recruitment of moles in the Defense Ministry and German national intelligence service — but rather the arrogant tone of the Obama administration. The president, for example, refused Merkel’s reasonable request for a no-spy agreement. Washington won’t even respond to Berlin’s requests for information on the spying activities. Apparently CIA Director John Brennan wouldn’t answer Germany’s basic questions about the newest spying allegations. It seems as though the dismissive, insulting manner offended more than the spying itself — or Merkel would have gotten tougher sooner.

Providing political asylum to Snowden would mean so much more than this harmless diplomatic swipe. It would spark a reassessment of U.S. foreign policy since the war on terror began. As the dribs and drabs of new information from the Snowden files continue to come out, thanks to The Intercept, the media creation of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and journalist Glenn Greenwald, we’re slowly getting a picture of the immense breadth of the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.

A thorough investigation of such spying, though on a broader scale, is exactly what Germany’s left-wing opposition parties, the Greens and the Left Party, have been calling for now for over a year in the Bundestag — but to no avail. The Merkel administration has dragged its feet and refuses to invite Snowden to Berlin to testify in person in front of the parliament’s committee hearings, as he insists he must. (Snodwen refuses to give testimony in a video interview, saying only in person can he provide free and reliable information to the degree necessary.) The German government’s explanations are vague and shifty. Sometimes the conservatives say outright that they don’t want to jeopardize relations with Washington — which is the bottom line. But they also say they fear that Germany couldn’t guarantee Snowden’s safety in Germany, in the event that the U.S. issues a snatch order or demands his arrest and extradition. Also, there’s the possibility that once in Germany, Snowden would just go ahead and apply for political asylum, thus affording him the same rights as other persons alleging political persecution. He would have this right just like members of Iran’s political opposition — and thus the right to reside safely in Germany until his asylum trial comes up and a decision is made.   

Maybe, though, there are other reasons that the government is so adamant that Snowden not testify in Germany. As one Bundestag staffer who did not wish to be named told me, the role of the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, in domestic spying on citizens is as opaque as that of the NSA’s programs — and there’s been no German equivalent of Snowden. It’s highly possible that the BND’s activities weren’t so different from those of the NSA — or that there was cooperation between them. Revelations of this order could bring down the government in Berlin. 

The claim that German security couldn’t protect Snowden on German soil is nonsense, a feeble excuse to not consider inviting him or considering asylum. Merkel doesn’t want to offend Germany’s powerful ally and security provider. It might just mean that Berlin and Europe as a whole will finally be forced to sit down and formulate their own foreign and security policies — which would view the U.S. as an important partner and ally but not Europe’s minder. 

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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