PR Tricks Berlin Leaves Biggest NSA Questions Unanswered

Weeks after the NSA scandal, the German government is slowly breaking its silence on the issue. In the midst of the election campaign, Chancellery head Ronald Pofalla has been tasked with defusing the affair. So far, he hasn't answered the most pressing questions.


Last Thursday, Ronald Pofalla, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, spent almost three hours discussing the ongoing NSA surveillance scandal -- first before a German parliamentary committee and then in front of the press.

It was an attempt to take the offensive in the seventh week since documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the United States' global data surveillance operations -- as well as the cooperation of German intelligence services.

For a long time, Merkel tried to ride out the scandal surrounding the massive data collection operations of the American National Security Agency. Whenever she addressed the issue, she either spoke in vague terms ("there must always be a balance between freedom and security"), or she simply said that she could not seriously be expected to be involved in everything ("It isn't my job to delve into the details of Prism.")

But early last week, Merkel and her team decided on a change of strategy. So far, the scandal hasn't hurt her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in its campaign for September's national elections. In fact, recent polls even showed the CDU gaining a little ground. Nevertheless, the case has the potential to harm Merkel's image as a prudent leader. In the past, the chancellor has consistently emphasized that she keeps herself informed on current issues, even down to the details. But then Merkel declined to address the particulars of a surveillance program that half the country was talking about. Suddenly she was being described as a self-righteous politician with a couldn't-care-less attitude.

Facing the Public

This was one of the reasons Pofalla, who is also the senior Chancellery official tasked with coordinating Germany's intelligence activities, decided to address the sensitive subject. Last Monday, he volunteered to answer questions before the Parliamentary Control Panel, the body in German parliament, the Bundestag, assigned to keep tabs on the activities of the country's intelligence agencies. From the standpoint of Merkel's team, this has two advantages. On the one hand, it enabled Pofalla to avoid the embarrassing situation of being quoted by members of the leading opposition party, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), in front of the committee. On the other hand, he is making himself the target for attacks from the opposition, taking the chancellor out of the line of fire.

But can the strategy succeed? Documents obtained by whistleblower Snowden, which SPIEGEL was able to view, raise a host of new questions. And during his appearance before the control committee, Pofalla used a trick that PR professionals like to use in tight situations: They deny accusations that no one has made, leaving the truly sensitive questions unanswered.

The heads of Germany's major intelligence services, Gerhard Schindler of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, and Hans-Georg Maassen of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, its domestic counterpart, had already used the same trick before. A week ago, they responded to a SPIEGEL story in the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag weekly, even though the SPIEGEL issue wasn't even on newsstands yet at that point.

It was an audacious move, because SPIEGEL had, of course, already given the two intelligence services the opportunities to respond to its inquiries. For instance, SPIEGEL wanted to know whether the two agencies use XKeyscore, US spy software that, according to documents from the Snowden archive, allow for extensive surveillance of digital data traffic.

Damage Control

Both agencies, as well as the federal government, were unwilling to talk to SPIEGEL about the issue. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution only issued a statement saying that it would not comment "on indiscretions" and "supposed details" of intelligence activities.

But when speaking to Bild am Sonntag, Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution President Maaßen suddenly became relatively talkative, even admitting that his agency does use XKeyscore, albeit only for test purposes. Neither does BND President Schindler deny the use of the software.

Then the intelligence chiefs went on the counteroffensive. "The transfer of millions of pieces of data a month from Germany to the NSA through the BND does not take place," Schindler said.

But that wasn't what SPIEGEL had reported. It was reported that the German agencies use a highly effective NSA surveillance software, and that this was not disclosed to the lawmakers on the Parliamentary Control Panel, even though the committee had already met four times since the surveillance scandal broke.

Pofalla resorted to a similar trick in another case. SPIEGEL had written that the BND had advocated a looser interpretation of Germany's strict data privacy laws, as stated in the NSA documents ("to relax interpretation of the privacy laws"). After appearing before the panel on Thursday, Pofalla declared that the "unbelievable accusations" that had been leveled against the German intelligence agencies had now been clearly refuted. "The German intelligence services operate in accordance with law and order," he said. But SPIEGEL hadn't even claimed that BND President Schindler was violating current law.

In the hearing before the control panel, the BND chief also confirmed that, from the standpoint of his agency, data privacy laws should be interpreted more loosely, and that this was also what he had said in the United States. But, he denied, in the form of an "official statement," wanting to soften German data privacy laws across the board.

On Thursday, Pofalla's line of defense was clear, namely that the German intelligence services are blameless, at least legally. "Data privacy laws are adhered to 100 percent of the time," he said.

More Questions Persist

If that's the case, the question arises as to how millions of pieces of communications data entered the NSA databases. But the issue was avoided on Thursday, because answering the question requires getting answers from the US government first.

But that didn't prevent the Chancellery chief from sowing doubts as to NSA surveillance activities. It remained to seen "whether and, if so, to what extent we in Germany" are affected, he said. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich had made similar comments when he spoke of unconfirmed reports. And when speaking to journalists Hans-Peter Uhl, a politician with the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), even went so far as to liken the scandal to the fake Hitler diaries the newsmagazine Stern published 30 years ago.

It was a bold move. More than seven weeks have passed since the first documents from the Snowden archive were published. At no point did the NSA question the authenticity of the documents. On the contrary, it sharply criticized the publication of materials it had classified as "top secret."

The same applies to reports on its Boundless Informant program. According to the documents on the program, the NSA had access to about 500 million data connections from Germany in December 2012 alone.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Lawrence Marshall 07/30/2013
1. Germany should offer Snowden political asylum
I can understand why German top brass and politicians are reluctant to offer Snowden political asylum - but surely he deserves it for revealing the massive extent of interception of the communications of German citizens which otherwise would have never been known by the public. Russia is right that he should stop the leaks - but Russia is not the right place for a person who values individual freedom and rights such as Snowden. Neither are most of the Latin American countries supposedly offering Snowden asylum. Germany - because it largely plays by decent rules - is.
Chrssl 07/30/2013
2. Truths that profoundly defy my understanding of democracy and rightousness
As a German citizen, having served a military term within Germany’s forces in compliance with what had been expected by law from my fellow citizens and myself regarding our fulfillment of duties and obedience to the taken oath, I feel deeply betrayed and disrespected by my government as well as by those who I, and presumably all of my fellows, had taken to be our allies. The amount of espionage allegedly maintained on communication lines handling the exchange of private conversations, confidential industrial matters, political or government internals relying on the indisputable integrity of available means of communication in forwarding any notices – this horrific assault on established civil rights is beyond any appropriate comment I am able to assemble. Regarding the amount of courage Mr. Edward Snowden has taken to enable a public understanding of perhaps only a fraction of the filthiest and most disgusting trash some European governments have collaborated with, he is clearly to be compared to Hans and Sophie Scholl, who as students in Munich attempted to whistleblow on Nazi Germany. Both along with a number of their fellow men, charged on complicity by Roland Freisler, were executed in 1943. Of course, measures against terrorism need to be installed. But this may not under any circumstance be taken as a deliberate charter to hamper with established and indisputable civil rights, the latter I still intend to take for granted!
tsklinger 07/30/2013
3. Passing the Buck
“It isn’t my job . . . “? You’re fired. If it isn’t your job, where does the buck stop? “The transfer of millions of pieces of data a month from Germany to the NSA through the BND does not take place.” Sorry. We’ve already read Guardian interviews with Snowden that state otherwise. “The German intelligence services operate in accordance with law and order.” I don’t know anything about German law, but if this were the case, this would be a non-story. Likening the scandal to the fake Hitler diaries is an interesting allusion. It’s been my experience that people who attempt to answer questions that haven’t been asked while avoiding questions that have are doing two things: baiting and switching and/or outright lying. The more defensive they are, the higher the likelihood they’re lying. A bait-and-switch is manipulative, and manipulation is always a lie; so the bottom line is they’re lying. Saying XKeyscore for test purposes shouldn’t comfort anyone when the US has most certainly programmed it to provide the NSA with every keystroke. Pofalla is talking out of both sides of his head by saying that, “Data privacy laws are adhered to 100% of the time,” when the leaked NSA documents quote him as saying he believes the laws should be relaxed. The relaxation has already occurred. What happens if the German government stands up to the US and disconnects from its surveillance system? What do it and the individual German representatives stand to lose? The greatest threat to any society isn't terrorism; the greatest threat to any society is corruption of its government and the suspension of human rights under any guise. Germany is barely three generations from raging fascism and the Holocaust, which were implemented in increments just like this.
peterboyle.4848 07/30/2013
4. The Vote Will Tell
It is up to the German people. If Merkel is re-elected then the German people do not really mind what the Americans are doing. The rest of the world is focused on the Snowden drama at the airport, and is not really reporting on the facts he has released so far. But then, it is only Germany that has elections right now so it is both timely and appropriate that Germany is demanding answers from the Americans and their own government. The rest of Europe is watching and waiting. Once again it is Germany leading the way, setting the tone, and standing alone.
plutocrat 07/30/2013
5. Reality disfunction
What amazes me is the tactics used by BND and Chancellery with which they do not deny existence of spying tools and spying activities against German people but how very cleverly avoid any discussion about damage caused to German Industry. Only someone entirely stupid would believe that all of these corporate confidential and top secret data which are essential for the companies existence and development which were illegally obtained by spying agencies and given to the US industrial counterparts thus annulling German advantage in running business. I wonder if ever will anyone dare to look into this part of problem and evaluate loss suffered by the German industry, how many jobs were lost due to lost job opportunities. These are problems that deserve closer look as they are pointed directly against German national interest and is equal to spying for foreign country and therefore is criminal offense.
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