Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Germany Might Offer Snowden Asylum

With the revelation of NSA spying on the European Union, the Edward Snowden case has taken a fresh and unexpected turn. The Obama administration already had egg on its face from the news that it has been hacking into Chinese computers at the very moment it was denouncing Beijing for its assaults on American networks. Now it turns out that the saga of American cyberattacks is far from over. Small wonder that the Obama administration reacted so vociferously when Snowden began leaking. What else does he have to disclose?

The massive NSA spying against America's closest allies was revealed in the German weekly Der Spiegel, which has a long history of obtaining investigative scoops. The German Federal Prosecutors' Office was already investigating American spying on German citizens. Der Spiegel reports that some "500 million connections in Germany are monitored monthly by the agency." Now Der Spiegel apparently got to see some of Snowden's documents, in which EU officials in Brussels are described as a "location target." Spying also apparently took place in Washington on European Union offices. German officials are reacting with outrage--Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger says it is reminiscent of the "cold war."

Until now, the NSA has claimed that it was simply harvesting data abroad to combat terrorism. This leak, however, shows that once again the NSA has not been telling the truth. Lying, if you prefer an impolite term. Lying to Americans, lying to Europeans, lying to everyone within earshot. So it goes when a national security Moloch is created that can only justify its existence and expansion by pointing to the constant need for new missions, new people to spy on, new things to uncover.

In Germany the snooper state is regarded with particular aversion since Germans have already experienced it during the Nazi era when a totalitarian government aspired to total control over the lives of its citizens. Then came East Germany and the Stasi. Our own efforts, in their ubiquity and sheer accumulation of useless information, seem increasingly to parallel the Stasi, indeed dwarf it in volume. 

The consequences for the transatlantic relationship are unpredictable. Is it all sound and fury? Or are the Europeans really ready to put the much-ballyhooed free trade treaty with America on ice, at least for now? It is certainly the case that the Obama administration's predilection for keeping tabs on Europeans will boomerang. In Germany distrust of America, already high to begin with, will reach Mt. Everest levels of cynicism. The editorial page of the mainstream daily Der Tagespiegel is asking if America can even be considered a democracy. Germans regarded America under George W. Bush as a rogue state more dangerous than Iran. Obama was supposed to be the savior. Instead, disillusionment has set in. For Obama the danger is that European cooperation with American anti-terror efforts could become grudging and that a trade agreement may be stymied.

As for Frau Angela Merkel, she is headed into the fall election season and eager to win a fresh term as chancellor. Mutti, or mother, as she is known, could put quite a bit of wind into her sails if she were to rescue a hapless youth from a vengeful American government. She could offer him asylum. It's a move that would meet with resounding approval among the German populace. In Europe, as in Russia, he is seen as a freedom fighter against an oppressive American national security state.

Granting Snowden refuge would allow Merkel to demonstrate her indepedence from America, ease relations with Russia, which would like a quick resolution to the Snowden conundrum, and permit her to appear as a benevolent and astute leader. Mutti could embrace young Edward, set him on a new path. She might even meet him at the Berlin Tegel airport with a fresh pair of lederhosen, introduce him to oompah bands and beer gardens, and send him off to work in Germany's high-tech state of Bavaria. There he could help his new compatriots to fend off future cyberattacks from America. After all, he has already rendered special service to the German state.