Hunting American Spooks Germany Prepares Further Spying Clampdown
Part 2: A Palpable Sense of Insecurity
After the second suspected case of espionage in one week, many in Berlin have tried to downplay the damage. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), characterized as "laughable" the information the Americans obtained through the informant. "At the moment, we can only see this as a minor disaster," say intelligence officials, noting that it is anything but certain that there is more to the Defense Ministry case than an unusual friendship between two men.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said, drastically, that the Americans' actions were "so idiotic" than he could almost break out in tears over the news. Nevertheless, he sounded like a grandfather who had caught his grandson stealing erasers -- an unfortunate matter, but not particularly dramatic.
But the scope of the damage the Americans have inflicted so far is still only vaguely recognizable. Their initial response to the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden in the summer of 2013 was that the Germans should get over themselves -- after all, they insisted, everything the NSA does takes place in the interest of freedom and strictly in accordance with law and order. But then came the revelations of the tapping of Merkel's mobile phone. It was an embarrassing incident for US President Barack Obama, who quickly gave Merkel his personal assurance that US intelligence would refrain from tapping her phone in the future. The inference was that it would be less likely to do so in other cases.
The case of the CIA informant at the BND shows that Washington apparently still doesn't consider the massive technical efforts it undertakes to spy on the entire globe to be sufficient. It helps to explain why the numerous US intelligence agencies still manage human sources, just as they did in the bad old days, even in the nerve centers of Washington's close allies.
The Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe, Germany's top investigative agency, is now pursuing three cases of suspected espionage relating to the United States, supposedly Germany's closest ally. Even the biggest appeasers in Berlin must realize by now that the Americans are dead serious when it comes to their desire to know "everything," to quote an NSA document.
There is a palpable sense of insecurity in Berlin's government district these days. Even lawmakers with many years of experience have become suspicious of the US Embassy, as well as the embassies of France, Great Britain and Russia. They are all merely a stone's throw from the offices and conference rooms where German politicians sometimes meet. Some now view the highly secured foreign embassies as little more than surveillance antennas surrounded by buildings.
Many lawmakers involved with the intelligence services and their supervision have stopped discussing sensitive information on the phone or sending unencrypted emails, and they have taken to meeting in person, in public places, for confidential conversations. If they even take their mobile phones along, they sometimes use them to play loud lounge music, hoping to confuse unwelcome listeners.
A number of parliamentarians also now plan to obtain so-called crypto phones, which, though expensive and impractical, are practically bug-proof. Patrick Sensburg (CDU), the chairman of the NSA investigative committee, has already had crypto phones purchased for his fellow committee members.
The week before last, before the BND spy case became widely known, Sensburg invited the committee representatives to attend an extraordinary meeting. In it, he allegedly highlighted the risk that all members of the committee, formed to investigate the NSA scandal, are in fact being spied on themselves.
In fact, Sensburg believes that the current cases of espionage will not be the last. "I fear that there will be a domino effect," says Sensburg, a lawyer by profession. "I am convinced that even more will be revealed in the coming weeks and months, and that America will not be the only country involved."
The chairman has announced that he intends to make his committee's technical infrastructure as spy-proof as possible. "It would also be advisable for all of us to have the Federal Office for Information Security check our mobile phones."
Is this paranoia? It depends on one's point of view. Last week Roderich Kiesewetter, a retired colonel who represents the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, in the NSA committee, said that he had had his mobile phone tested some time ago. And, lo and behold, technicians had determined that third parties had indeed tapped his phone.
As it appears, Kiesewetter isn't the only German lawmaker whose communications are of great interest to unknown parties. Steffen Bockhahn, a member of the intelligence committee for the Left Party in the last legislative period, was also apparently targeted in surveillance activities.
On July 30, 2013, Bockhahn's closest associate was on the phone in her house in the northern city of Rostock when the conversation was suddenly interrupted. She was alarmed when she glanced at her display. The phone, a Windows Phone 8X, seemingly operated by an invisible hand, had searched through her texting communications with Bockhahn. Then the device's email program was opened without the phone's owner being able to stop it. According to her account, emails specifically related to the parliament control panel appeared on her display. She insisted that a hacker was browsing through the documents. It may be a coincidence, but at the time the committee had been briefed about the NSA scandal almost weekly in closed-door meetings -- and Bockhahn was one of the most vocal German critics of the global espionage operation.
When the lawmaker heard about the mysterious cyber attack, he called the then state secretary in the Interior Ministry, Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, who notified the authorities. The Federal Criminal Police Office and police in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, with the help of cybercrime specialists, launched an investigation on Aug. 7, 2013 into suspected computer sabotage and efforts to secure state secrets. But they have been unable to solve the mystery to date.
According to Bockhahn, however, senior government officials told him that he should "assume that this was an intelligence operation," especially as his own mobile phone was also doing strange things during the time in question. For instance, says Bockhahn, he received several empty text messages from anonymous senders. "At some point you come to the realization that you have no way of defending yourself," says the Left Party politician. "It's not what I would call a free society."
Feverish Search for Appropriate Response
It still isn't clear whether intelligence services are actually behind such incidents. And if they are, which ones are they? In any event, it has slowly dawned on the German government in recent weeks that it must give a stronger reaction to American spying activities than just making polite inquiries in Washington.
Merkel's team spent last week feverishly searching for an appropriate reaction to the latest revelations. The fact that the Americans responded to the storm brewing over Berlin with their characteristic silence or platitudes did little to mollify members of Merkel's coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Once again, the Americans had underestimated the scope of the political damage. Washington was still reticent about the scandal days after the BND mole had been exposed, most likely because the CIA operation apparently had not been coordinated with the White House, at least not in detail.
Nevertheless, Republican US Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner says that if the Obama administration had wanted to deal with it, there would been ways to do so, such as the president putting in a call to the chancellor. He is critical of the president for not having called Merkel. Sensenbrenner is the first influential US politician to call for an end to spying on allies. Historically, the United States only maintained a no-spy agreement within the context of the "Five Eyes" club. Sensenbrenner argues that the club should be expanded and that Germany would be at the top of his list for new members. The latest incidents have done immeasurable damage, he adds, and now something has to be done to repair it.
Sending a Message that Hurts
So far, the Obama administration seems to disagree. Although CIA Director John Brennan requested a face-to-face meeting with German intelligence services coordinator Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, in it he said nothing about clearing up the allegations. Much to the indignation of officials in Berlin, Brennan didn't even admit to something that seems abundantly clear, based on the facts of the case to date: that his agents were managing the BND mole.
After US Ambassador to Germany John Emerson had sidestepped the issue in a conversation with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German government knew that it had to send a political message that would trigger more than amused smiles in Washington. It had to be a message that "hurt." This time the response was the expulsion of the CIA's top intelligence official in Germany.
The CIA agent, who was asked to leave the country, is not an unknown entity to German authorities. Since G. assumed his position in the summer of 2013, he painstakingly worked his way back up the Agency's list of Berlin contacts, which had cooled as a result of the NSA scandal. He attended meetings once a month, sometimes even more frequently, at the Interior Ministry, the Chancellery, the BND and the BFV, where he was respected for his networking abilities and affable manner.
It is not without irony that G. is the one being expelled. The German government knows that he had little or nothing to do with managing the informant. Instead, he had to go "because Germany needed a sacrifice as a political symbol," as a senior official puts it. This was probably why BFV head Hans-Georg Maassen delivered the order to leave Germany to the CIA agent in person on Thursday.
Berlin Wants Answers
Government representatives later called it a "sign of self-confidence," noting: "Now it's their turn." They want the Americans to finally provide some answers, at least to the most pressing questions surrounding the spying scandal, which were posed a year ago and have since been ignored in Washington.
If Obama refuses to back down, the German government could take further steps. However, Merkel already imposed narrow limits on herself from the very beginning. She doesn't want to jeopardize intelligence cooperation, because she believes that the risk of attacks in Germany is too great to simply dispense with US intelligence information.
But in light of the most recent events, even the most pro-American faction in the government is now increasingly willing to "realign" the intelligence services. What this means, most of all, is that the BFV will probably broaden its focus to include the United States in its counterespionage efforts in the future. In addition, the government is having experts in all government ministries search for weaknesses in communication technology, along with signs of American spying activity.
The hunt for additional moles has also begun at the BND. An investigative team will search data systems in all departments for unauthorized access, over a period of several years.
If the Americans remain obstinate, Berlin officials are even thinking about suspending or even paring back treaties with the United States.
In this context, the so-called Safe Harbor Program could prove to be an effective tool to apply pressure to Washington. The 2000 agreement allows US companies to store and process billions of pieces of data on European citizens, but only if they pledge to abide by European data privacy rules -- with US authorities monitoring compliance. More than 3,000 companies, including giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, have already agreed to the rules of the program.
"If we suspend this cooperative program, it will be both an economic and political blow to the Americans," says Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Party member of the European Parliament. His fellow party member Renate Künast, chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Consumer Protection in the Bundestag, says: "Under the Safe Harbor Agreement, our data are not secure when transmitted to the United States, but instead are exposed to uncertainty."
The German government is still hesitating before putting the screws on Washington. But at this point no one would bet that further cases will not turn up. "The Americans are furnishing their opponents with free arguments," says a government official.
By Nikolaus Blome, Florian Gathmann, Matthias Gebauer, Hubert Gude, Horand Knaup, Gordon Repinski, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Holger Stark
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Germany Prepares Further Spying Clampdown
- Part 2: A Palpable Sense of Insecurity