Controversial Strategy Germany Plans to Centralize Intelligence-Gathering Activities

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wants to set up a central communications monitoring agency in Cologne for use by the police and intelligence agencies, modeled after the US's NSA and the UK's GCHQ. But critics fear the creation of a powerful new super-agency.

By and


Radar domes at the Royal Air Force's Menwith Hill station in northern England, reportedly the largest electronic monitoring facility in the world: Germany wants to create a new intelligence agency to rival the US's NSA and Britain's GCHQ.
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Radar domes at the Royal Air Force's Menwith Hill station in northern England, reportedly the largest electronic monitoring facility in the world: Germany wants to create a new intelligence agency to rival the US's NSA and Britain's GCHQ.

When Deputy Interior Minister August Hanning starts talking about his latest official visit to the United Kingdom, the otherwise unemotional security expert waxes altogether enthusiastic.

The former head of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, describes a superforce of highly-trained specialists who sit at the most powerful and expensive computers where, in loyal service to Her Majesty the Queen, they pursue the delicate task of monitoring, recording, and evaluating electronic communications. Everything top secret, of course, and extremely effective.

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is the name of the agency that made such an impression on Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's deputy minister. The listening post is situated on the outskirts of Cheltenham and is housed in a ring-shaped complex that cost €1.8 billion ($2.8 billion) to build. It employs a staff of around 4,000 and is considered by experts to be the most modern facility of its kind in the world, on a par with the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. Enigma, the legendary German encryption machine used during World War II, is on display in an in-house museum and is the organization's most prized trophy. It was the staff of GCHQ's predecessor who cracked the supposedly unbreakable code, making it possible to decipher German radio communications from 1940 onwards.

As was the case with the cracking of the Enigma code back then, Hanning is convinced that agencies like GCHQ will make all the difference in today's world -- except that today security authorities see their main enemy as being Islamist terrorism inspired by Osama bin Laden.

The only problem is that no agency comparable to GCHQ exists in Germany. There is the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), and the Federal Police. All four currently have their own separate systems for monitoring communications. And that's just at the national level -- there are also numerous law enforcement and security agencies at the level of Germany's 16 federal states. All in all, there are more than 75 separate monitoring facilities in operation nationwide -- and they are frankly not very effective compared to the central monitoring stations in the UK and US.

This is likely to change in the near future. On orders from Schäuble's ministry, a BKA project group has been working since April on the ambitious plan of giving Germany its own central agency for communications monitoring, known in the trade as signals intelligence. This large-scale monitoring initiative is the latest in a series of bold security policy reforms Schäuble has proposed -- and is one that is particularly controversial.

The new technology is to be installed at the Federal Office of Administration (BVA) in Cologne. Housed in a star-shaped reinforced concrete structure, this federal authority has so far been responsible for such things as student loan administration, maintaining the central register of resident aliens, and deciding who will be granted permission to use German national emblems abroad. The only ornament in the austere lobby is a plaque with the names of all Germany's presidents to date.

Among the various suborganizations in this complex is the Federal Agency for Information Technology (BIT). This is where a communications monitoring system capable of rivaling those in other countries is to be put into operation by the middle of next year.

This would upgrade the Cologne-based federal authority to the status of what officials mockingly refer to a "mini-NSA." According to a memo from his ministry, Wolfgang Schäuble's senior officials are looking to establish a specialized computer center with a view to "harmonizing the fragmented signals intelligence landscape among the country's law enforcement and intelligence agencies."

In a letter addressed to members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, Hanning argues that a state-of-the-art monitoring facility is needed to stay abreast of the changes taking place in communications technology. The security authorities say they are "no longer able to adequately address" technological developments like Internet telephony, chat rooms, wireless Internet access, and widely available encryption programs. "The amount of information gathered by police and intelligence agencies is bound to decline dramatically unless decisive action is taken to counteract this trend," an Interior Ministry source said.

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