'Key Partners': Secret Links Between Germany and the NSA
Part 2: NSA Pleased with German 'Eagerness'
According to the presentation, the system is easy to use and enables surveillance of raw data traffic "like no other system."
An NSA transparency titled "What is XKeyscore?" describes a buffer memory that enables the program to absorb a "full take" of all unfiltered data for a number of days. In other words, XKeyscore doesn't just track call connection records, but can also capture the contents of communication, at least in part.
The program, for which there are several expansions known as plug-ins, apparently has even more capabilities. For instance, "user activity" can be monitored practically in real time and "anomalous events" traced in Internet traffic. If this is true, it means that XKeyscore makes almost total digital surveillance possible.
From the German perspective, this is especially troubling. Of the roughly 500 million data sets from Germany to which the NSA has access each month, XKeyscore captured about 180 million in December 2012.
This raises several questions. Does this mean that the NSA doesn't just have access to hundreds of millions of data sets from Germany, but also -- at least for periods of days -- to a so-called "full take," meaning to the content of communication in Germany? Can the BND and the BfV access the NSA databases with their versions of XKeyscore, which would give them access to the data on German citizens stored in those databases?
If this were the case, the government could hardly claim that it had no knowledge of the Americans' vigorous data acquisition activities.
German 'Eagerness' Is 'Welcomed'
SPIEGEL put these questions to both agencies and the Chancellery, but it received no answers on the use of the system. The BND merely issued a brief statement, saying that it was regrettably unable to comment publicly on the details of intelligence activities.
The NSA and the White House were similarly curt in their responses to SPIEGEL inquiries, merely noting that they had nothing to add to the remarks President Barack Obama made during his recent visit to Berlin.
The new revelations also shine a spotlight on the presidents of the BND and the BfV, Gerhard Schindler and Hans-Georg Maassen. Both men are relatively new in their positions. But BND President Schindler in particular, in office since January 2012, has already made his mark. He embodies the new, more offensive approach being taken by the foreign intelligence agency, which the NSA has expressly praised. Schindler's "eagerness," according to the NSA documents, was "welcomed" already in 2012.
When he came into office, the outspoken head of the BND encapsulated the new willingness to take risks. Internally, he asked each BND department to submit three proposals for joint operations with the US intelligence agencies.
Of course, there are also positive sides to this closer cooperation with the Americans. One of the BND's responsibilities is to protect German soldiers and prevent terrorist attacks. Doing so adequately is impossible without help from the Americans. Conversely, the BND's reputation has improved among US intelligence agencies, especially after it proved to be helpful in the Kunduz region of northern Afghanistan, where the German military, the Bundeswehr, is stationed. The Germans are now the third-largest procurer of information there.
They don't just share their information with the NSA, but also with 13 other Western countries. Some time ago, the agency brought its technical equipment in Afghanistan up to the latest standard. Results have been especially good since then, and the NSA is pleased.
In recent years, the BND has had the capability to listen in on phone conversations on a large scale in northern Afghanistan, aiding in the arrests of more than 20 high-ranking members of the Taliban -- including Mullah Rahman, once the shadow governor of Kunduz.
Relaxed Interpretation of Privacy Laws
According to an NSA document dated April 9, Germany, as part of the surveillance coalition in Afghanistan, has developed into the agency's "most prolific partner." The Germans are similarly successful in North Africa, where they also have special technical capabilities of interest to the NSA. The same applies in Iraq.
But according to the documents, the German foreign intelligence agency went even further in its effort to please the Americans. "The BND has been working to influence the German government to relax interpretation of the privacy laws to provide greater opportunities of intelligence sharing," the NSA agents noted with satisfaction in January.
Indeed, when Schindler took office, BND officials were divided over whether it was legal to pass on information to partner intelligence agencies that had been obtained in accordance with the German G-10 law. Schindler decided that it was, and the United States was pleased.
The surveillance base in Bad Aibling, a well-known American listening post in southern Germany, also shows how close ties are between the BND and the NSA. It was a symbol of technical espionage during the Cold War. Most recently, the NSA referred to the listening post by the code name "garlic." Although the last parts of the base were officially handed over to the BND in May 2012, NSA officials still come and go.
The NSA chief for Germany is still stationed at the local Mangfall Barracks. Some 18 Americans were still working at the surveillance station at the beginning of the year, 12 from the NSA and six working for private contractors. The office is expected to be scaled back during the course of the year, with the plans ultimately calling for only six NSA employees to remain at the base. According to the Snowden documents, their work will be to "cultivate new cooperation opportunities with Germany."
To be sure, intensive cooperation in counterterrorism activities is part of the core mission of Germany's foreign intelligence agency. But did lawmakers know about the scope of cooperation with the Americans? And, if they did, since when?
Making Things Worse
So far, the BND has been able to count on support from the Chancellery for its new approach. But things seem to be changing. The surveillance scandal has the potential to shake public confidence in the German government and in Chancellor Merkel -- and could negatively effect her chances for re-election.
The NSA's activities, of course, are not exactly driving the German people into the streets in droves. Nevertheless, revelations as to the extent of America's surveillance abroad are chipping away at Merkel's image as a reliable manager of the government. Some 69 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with her efforts to shed light on the issue, a number that has alarmed the Chancellery. Until the end of last week, Merkel had tried to distance herself from the subject, issuing only sparse statements. Instead of Merkel, Interior Minister Friedrich was expected to handle the delicate matter.
But Friedrich only made things worse, returning largely empty-handed from his trip to Washington. Instead, he seemed extremely proud of the fact that he had been allowed to speak with US Vice President Joe Biden.
To make matters worse, Friedrich had hardly returned to Germany before making the remark that "security" was a "Supergrundrecht," a new concept that implies that security trumps other civil rights. A minister charged with upholding the constitution who suddenly invented an interpretation of the German constitution that suits the NSA's purposes? At that moment, Merkel must have realized that she couldn't leave things entirely to her interior minister.
Last Friday, shortly before leaving for her summer vacation, Merkel unveiled an eight-point plan intended to provide more data security. But most of her points felt more like placebos. How, for example, are European intelligence agencies to agree on common data privacy guidelines if British and French intelligence agents are already snickering over the Germans' obsession with data privacy?
In a Bind
Merkel is in a bind. On the one hand, she doesn't want to give the impression that she is doing nothing about the Americans' lust for information. On the other hand, this also brings the scandal closer to the chancellor. In the end, it will revolve around the question of how much the government knew about the Americans' surveillance activities. Last Friday, the BND insisted, once again, that it had "no knowledge of the name, scope and extent of the NSA 'Prism' project being discussed."
But even if that's true, Prism was only a part of the NSA's surveillance system, and the new documents show that Germany was indeed extremely familiar with the agency's comprehensive ability to spy. They benefited from it, and they wanted more.
But Merkel claims that she knew nothing about the Americans' surveillance software. "I became aware of programs like Prism through current news reports," she told the left-leaning weekly newspaper Die Zeit last week. According to Merkel's staff, when she uses such language, she is relying on statements made by the German intelligence chiefs.
But what does that mean? Does the German government still have its intelligence agencies under control? Or have they become a kind of state-within-a-state?
And who exactly keeps track of whether the agencies, in their zeal to enforce the "Supergrundrecht" of security, haven't already gone too far?
The place where the activities of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies ought to be debated is the Parliamentary Control Panel in the German Bundestag. By law, the government is required to regularly and "comprehensively" inform the 11 members of the board, which meets in secret, about the work of the BND and the BfV, and explain "procedures with special importance."
Oddly enough, the board has met four times since the beginning of the NSA scandal, and, four times, lawmakers have learned little about the global data surveillance programs. Instead, they were forced to listen to long-winded lectures by those responsible, the essence of which generally was: We really don't know anything.
Spotlight on Merkel
Over the years, the board has mutated into a stage for large egos and is no longer particularly secret. The problem is that many panel members don't have sufficient time or expertise to truly understand the kind of activities the intelligence agencies are engaged in. It is a perfect situation for Germany's spies: The less the public learns about their activities, the more they can go about their business undisturbed.
"Monitoring of the agencies is purely theoretical," says Hans-Christian Ströbele, the Green Party representative on the board. "We don't learn about the truly explosive issues until they've been exposed by the media." This isn't surprising, given the vagueness of statutory provisions on the supervision of intelligence agencies.
The agencies enjoy "complete freedom," says attorney Wolfgang Nekovi, who once spent many years on the control board for the Left Party. The CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) have now agreed to establish an intelligence body to monitor the intelligence agencies. But in light of recent events, CDU domestic policy expert Clemens Binninger believes that a "major solution" is needed. He favors the idea of a parliamentary intelligence official, to be provided with his own powers and staff.
It is an awkward situation for Merkel. In the midst of an election campaign, her government suddenly looks to be characterized by chaos. Of course, if it turns out that the intelligence agencies were deceiving her, she could clean house. BND chief Schindler would seem to be in the front of the firing line, with Ronald Pofalla, who, as Merkel's chief of staff, is tasked with monitoring the intelligence agencies, not far behind.
But the Chancellery staff has no illusions. The SPD and the Greens will continue putting Merkel in the NSA spotlight no matter what happens. "The chancellor is more interested in defending the interests of the US intelligence agencies in Germany than German interests in the United States," says SPD Chairman Gabriel. It seems unlikely that the opposition will stand down any time between now and election day, on Sept. 22.
BY RENÉ PFISTER, LAURA POITRAS, MARCEL ROSENBACH, JÖRG SCHINDLER and HOLGER STARK
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Secret Links Between Germany and the NSA
- Part 2: NSA Pleased with German 'Eagerness'
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