Mom, Dad, for the last time, stop spying on me. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
Mom, Dad, for the last time, stop spying on me. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

The politics of the revelation that the U.S. probably spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel are awful, but it's her own protection services she should be hauling over coals right now.

Why? Because the job of security services is to assume that the rest of the world is out to spy on what leaders have to say (because it is) and protect them. If the U.S. was able to tap Merkel's cell phone, then we can imagine so were the Russians, the Chinese, the French and no doubt others. Someone failed.

That said, the revelation will do damage. For one thing, Merkel is a very popular chancellor, whose strength is seen as her down-to-earthiness and modesty; she's sometimes known as "Mutti," or Mom, in Germany. Listening in on her private cell phone will look particularly wrong to Germans, more so, I'd guess, than if the target had been former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- as no doubt he was at the time.

Second, Merkel grew up in East Germany, under the oppressive big brother eye of the Stasi, or secret police. Those are bad memories with which the U.S. should not want to be associated.

But third and most important, Germany has a special relationship with the U.S., which is being eroded. This isn't like the better known special relationship that the U.S. has with the U.K. That one is based on intelligence-sharing, common defense assumptions, a shared language and other ties. The bonds between Germany and the U.S. are more like those between child and parent.

That sounds horribly condescending toward Germany, but it contains truth. This kind of relationship has existed between the two countries ever since World War II, when the U.S. set ground rules for the new post-Nazi Germany (by drafting a new constitution), seed-funded the future of its economy (with the Marshall Plan and a veto of attempts by other European powers to punish Germany as they did after World War I) and guaranteed its security (the last U.S. tanks left Germany this year).

At times Germans have rebelled against this rather paternalistic relationship, and it has been under growing strain -- over the Iraq war, the euro crisis and other differences. But there was always an assumption of trust in the essentially benign intentions of the U.S. toward Germany.

This makes the discovery that the U.S. was tapping Merkel's phone a little like a youngster catching her parents spying on her Facebook page, checking her texts and searching her laptop for diary entries. The shock isn't that this can be done -- every kid knows of parental spy stories -- but that trust was betrayed.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)