Some Germans believe their country should grant NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum.
Credit: Johannes Eisele

BERLIN, Germany — On Facebook, lying is an unfriending offense. Geopolitics may be slightly more complicated.

So after the news that the United States is backtracking on a promise not to spy on its ally by the National Security Agency (NSA), will Germany just suck it up?

Not if peer pressure has anything to do with it.

“America lied to us,” the German-language Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted a high-ranking official as saying in a report claiming that a “no spy” pact between the two countries is dying a slow death in negotiation committees. “We've got nothing.”

The process began late last year, when Washington made four promises to Berlin in an effort to quash resentment over revelations that the NSA and President Barack Obama had listened in on Chancellor Angela Merkel's private phone conversations on top of perusing the personal data of millions of ordinary Germans.

The US vowed that the NSA wouldn’t violate Germany's national interests. It agreed it would not spy on German government officials. It promised not to engage in industrial espionage involving German companies. And it said it would never again violate German laws to collect private data.

But as their US counterparts fight tooth and nail to avoid measures that would make any of those promises legally binding, German negotiators say crossing your fingers doesn't count in international relations.

The result may prompt new calls from the German media and opposition politicians for Berlin to play hardball on other issues, such as a proposed free-trade agreement between the US and European Union, Germany's former data protection commissioner suggests.

“The US will act only if we give them real arguments that it is in their own interest,” says Peter Schaar, former Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.

“We have to combine different issues like the free-trade agreement, the safe-harbor regime on the protection of personal data, the question of financial data related to SWIFT bank transfers [with the issue of spying]. Then perhaps these arguments would be heard by the US officials.”

It's not clear whether Germany’s new coalition government, which formally took power only at the beginning of the year, will be prepared to undertake tougher actions than the previous one, Schaar added.

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Acting government officials have so far declined to comment on the record about the ongoing “no spy” pact negotiations.

But pressure appears to be mounting despite Merkel's repeated attempts to downplay the issue in order to protect US-German trade relations.

The US “will not honor its verbal agreement,” Die Welt reported Wednesday. “America remains at the listening post.”

“I think the US needs to see the damage all this activity has done, and how much trust has been lost in Germany,” Deutsche Welle quoted Philipp Missfelder, Germany's new coordinator for Transatlantic cooperation, as saying.

“Let's not deceive ourselves: even if a no-spy agreement were to be signed, there would still be many unanswered questions.”

“If Germany goes on endlessly without a deal or accepts a completely meaningless agreement,” a columnist for Tagespiegel added, “it will have disgraced itself thoroughly.”

Although he US and Germany will almost certainly remain “frenemies,” their spat may nevertheless have broad implications.

Public pressure could spur action in the European Union parliament, where an effort to rewrite privacy laws and empower regulators to fine companies such as Google and Facebook as much as 100 million euros for handing over private information to the NSA risks running out of time before new elections in May.

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