Embassy Espionage: The NSA's Secret Spy Hub in Berlin
Part 3: Surprising Unscrupulousness
The scandal revives an old question: Are the German security agencies too trusting of the Americans? Until now, German agencies have typically concerned themselves with China and Russia in their counterintelligence work, for which the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV), is responsible.
A year ago, there was already debate between the agencies, the Interior Ministry and the Chancellery over whether Germany should be taking a harder look at what American agents were up to in the country. But the idea was jettisoned because it seemed too politically sensitive. The main question at the time came down to whether monitoring allies should be allowed.
The ongoing spying scandal is also fueling allegations that the Germans have been allowing the NSA to lead them around by the nose. From the beginning of the NSA scandal, Berlin has conducted its attempts to clarify the allegations with a mixture of naivety and ignorance.
Letters with anxious questions were sent, and a group of government department leaders traveled to Washington to meet with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. The BND was also commissioned with negotiating a "no-spying pact" with the US agencies. In this way, Merkel's government feigned activity while remaining largely in the dark. In fact, it relied primarily on the assurance from the US that its intentions were good.
It also seems to be difficult for German intelligence agencies to actually track the activities of the NSA. High-level government officials admit the Americans' technical capabilities are in many ways superior to what exists in Germany. At the BFV domestic intelligence agency, for example, not even every employee has a computer with an Internet connection.
But now, as a consequence of the spying scandal, the German agencies want to beef up their capabilities. "We're talking about a fundamental realignment of counterintelligence," said one senior security official. There are already more than 100 employees at the BFV responsible for counterintelligence, but officials are hoping to see this double.
One focus of strategic considerations is the embassy buildings in central Berlin. "We don't know which roofs currently have spying equipment installed," says the security official. "That is a problem."
Trade Agreement at Risk?
When the news of Merkel's mobile phone being tapped began making the rounds, the BND and the BSI, the federal agency responsible for information security, took over investigation of the matter. There too, officials have been able to do nothing more than ask questions of the Americans when such sensitive issues have come up in recent months.
But now German-American relations are threatened with an ice age. Merkel's connection to Obama wasn't particularly good before the spying scandal. The chancellor is said to consider the president overrated -- a politician who talks a lot but does little, and is unreliable to boot.
One example, from Berlin's perspective, was the military operation in Libya almost three years ago, which Obama initially rejected. When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced him to change his mind, he did so without consulting his allies. Berlin saw this as evidence of his fickleness and disregard for their concerns.
The chancellor also finds Washington's regular advice on how to solve the euro crisis irritating. She would prefer not to receive instruction from the country that caused the collapse of the global financial system in the first place. Meanwhile, the Americans have been annoyed for years that Germany isn't willing to do more to boost the world economy.
Merkel also feels as though she was duped. The Chancellery now plans once again to review the assurances of US intelligence agencies to make sure they are abiding by the law.
The chancellor's office is also now considering the possibility that the much-desired trans-Atlantic free trade agreement could fail if the NSA affair isn't properly cleared up. Since the latest revelations came out, some 58 percent of Germans say they support breaking off ongoing talks, while just 28 percent are against it. "We should put the negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the US on ice until the accusations against the NSA have been clarified," says Bavarian Economy Minister Ilse Aigner, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats.
Outgoing Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has used the scandal as an excuse to appeal to the conscience of her counterpart in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder. "The citizens rightly expect that American institutions also adhere to German laws. Unfortunately, there are a number of indications to the contrary," she wrote in a letter to Holder last week.
EU Leaders Consider Consequences
The American spying tactics weren't far from the minds of leaders at the EU summit in Brussels last Thursday, either. French President Hollande was the first to bring it up at dinner, saying that while he didn't want to demonize the intelligence agencies, the Americans had so blatantly broken the law on millions of counts that he couldn't imagine how things could go on this way.
Hollande called for a code of conduct among the intelligence agencies, an idea for which Merkel also showed support. But soon doubts emerged: Wouldn't Europe also have to take a look at its own surveillance practices? What if a German or French Snowden came forward to reveal dirty spy tactics? British Prime Minister David Cameron pointed out how many terror attacks had been prevented because of spying capabilities. Then it was asked whether it has been proven that Obama even knows what his agencies are doing. Suddenly, mutual understanding seemed to waft through the group.
Merkel no longer wants to rely solely on promises. This week GŁnter Heiss, Chancellor Merkel's intelligence coordinator, will travel to Washington. Heiss wants the Americans finally to promise a contract excluding mutual surveillance. The German side already announced its intention to sign on to this no-spying pact during the summer, but the US government has so far shown little inclination to seriously engage with the topic.
This is, of course, also about the chancellor's cellphone. Because despite all the anger, Merkel still didn't want to give up using her old number as of the end of last week. She was using it to make calls and to send text messages. Only for very delicate conversations did she switch to a secure line.
BY JACOB APPELBAUM, NIKOLAUS BLOME, HUBERT GUDE, RALF NEUKIRCH, REN… PFISTER, LAURA POITRAS, MARCEL ROSENBACH, J÷RG SCHINDLER, GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ AND HOLGER STARK
Translated from the German by Kristen Allen and Charly Wilder
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