Why NSA Spying On The German Chancellor's Aides Matters

As the Sochi Olympics came to a close Sunday, a German paper reported new revelations about the National Security Agency’s overseas surveillance — specifically, the NSA is tapping the phones of close aides to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. These reports usually elicit more of a yawn than a jaw-drop nowadays, as there seems to be a new revelation about the NSA’s surveillance every day or so. But this is different — not only because of what’s being reported, but because the person behind the leak is someone other than Edward Snowden.

There was something of an international uproar last year when it was revealed that the NSA, in addition to snooping on its own citizens, had bugged the personal cell phone of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. The prospect of the U.S. spying on the head of state of a country it supposedly considers an ally infuriated many, especially Merkel, and President Obama quickly promised to stop. That promise was quickly walked back by administration officials, and on Sunday, the Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported that the NSA is still tapping the phones of Merkel’s closest aides, including Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

"We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor's communication directly," said a source described as a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany. The source claimed that, in total, the NSA is monitoring the communications of 320 top German officials and economists.

There are two things to note here. First, if this report is true, the NSA is apparently hell-bent on spying on Germany’s top officials. Tapping Merkel’s phone is one thing — a big thing, to be sure — but to tap her aides’ phones after the initial phone-tapping goes public, and after promising not to do so again, is another thing altogether. It’s borderline hostile, and communicates the U.S.’s true global priorities loudly and clearly to Germany. If the report is accurate, those priorities don’t include respecting Germany’s privacy as a supposed U.S. ally.

But the source of this leak is important, too. Bild am Sonntag said that the information came from a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany. Edward Snowden doesn’t work for the NSA anymore (duh), and by all accounts, he’s currently in Russia. This means that there’s another potential leaker within the agency’s ranks — or, at the very least, an NSA employee who feels comfortable coming forward to the press about the agency’s most secretive, controversial activities abroad.

Now, this is just one report in one newspaper. It could be untrue, and even if it is true, it’s possible that this employee will never be heard from again. It’s also possible, though, that the overall success of Snowden’s dramatic reveal has inspired other NSA employees to spill the beans on aspects of U.S. surveillance with which they’re uncomfortable. Snowden could just be the beginning.