'Key Partners': Secret Links Between Germany and the NSA

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Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly said she knew nothing about American surveillance activities in Germany. But documents seen by SPIEGEL show that German intelligence cooperates closely with the NSA and even uses spy software provided by the US. By SPIEGEL

It was a busy two days for the surveillance specialists of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency. At the end of April, a team of 12 senior BND officials flew to the United States, where they visited the heart of the global American surveillance empire: the National Security Agency (NSA). The purpose of their mission can be read in a "top secret" NSA document which SPIEGEL has seen -- one of the trove of files in the possession of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

According to the document, BND President Gerhard Schindler repeatedly expressed an "eagerness" to cooperate more closely with the NSA. The Germans, the document reads, were looking for "guidance and advice."

Their wish was fulfilled. Senior employees with the NSA's Foreign Affairs Directorate were assigned to look after the German delegation. The Americans organized a "strategic planning conference" to bring their German partners up to speed. In the afternoon, following several presentations on current methods of data acquisition, senior members of a division known as Special Source Operations, or SSO, spoke to their German guests. The SSO, one of the most secretive groups within the intelligence community, is the division that forms alliances with US companies, especially in the IT sector, for data mining purposes. Snowden describes this elite unit as the NSA's "crown jewels".

The journey to Washington wasn't the first educational trip by German intelligence officials across the Atlantic this spring -- nor was it the last. Documents from Snowden that SPIEGEL has seen show that cooperation between Berlin and Washington in the area of digital surveillance and defense has intensified considerably during the tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to one document, the Germans are determined to "strengthen and expand bilateral cooperation."

Completely Unaware?

This is awkward news for Merkel, who is running for re-election as the head of the center-right Christian Democrats. The German campaign had been relatively uneventful until recently, but now a new issue seems to have emerged: the Americans' lust for data. Opposition politicians have intensified their attacks in recent days. First Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for the Chancellery, accused Merkel of having violated her oath of office for failing to protect the basic rights of Germans. Not long later, SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel referred to Merkel as a "spin doctor who is trying to placate the population." According to Gabriel, it has since been proven that the German government knew about the NSA's activities.

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13  Photos
Photo Gallery: Germans Take to Streets in Protests against US Spying
But the attacks from the SPD are not the chancellor's biggest worry; the real threat comes from within. At a very early juncture, Merkel insisted that her government had been completely unaware of the NSA's activities. It is a position she reiterated before starting her summer vacation last Friday.

She will now be judged on the basis of those statements. Internally, Merkel's advisors argue that she had no choice but to take such a clear position. After all, both the head of the BND and the president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, had said that they had had no detailed knowledge of the Prism surveillance program and the extent of American data collection. On what basis could Merkel have contradicted them?

But with each day, fears are growing at the Chancellery that a paper could eventually turn up that clearly shows the government's knowledge of the NSA activities.

But does that really matter? What is worse? To be governed by a cabinet that conceals its connivance from citizens? Or to have a chancellor and ministers whose intelligence agencies exist in a parallel world, beyond the supervision of the government and parliament? Internal NSA documents show that the Americans and German intelligence agencies are cooperating more closely than previously known. The repeated assertions by the government and intelligence agencies in recent weeks that they were not fully aware of what US surveillance specialists were doing appear disingenuous in the extreme in light of the documents SPIEGEL has seen from the collection secured by Snowden.

'Key Partners'

According to those documents, the BND, the BfV and the Bonn-based Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) all play a central role in the exchange of information among intelligence agencies. The NSA refers to them as "key partners."

The Americans provided the BfV with one of their most productive spying tools, a system called "XKeyscore." It's the same surveillance program that the NSA uses to capture a large share of the up to 500 million data sets from Germany, to which it has access each month, according to internal documents seen and reported on by SPIEGEL on the first of this month.

The documents also reveal the lengths to which the German agencies and German politicians were willing to go to develop an even closer relationship with the Americans. This is especially applicable to the G-10 law, which establishes the conditions under which surveillance of German citizens is permissible. In one classified document -- under a section titled "Success Stories" -- it reads: "The German government modifies its interpretation of the G-10 privacy law … to afford the BND more flexibility in sharing protected information with foreign partners."

The claim that German intelligence agencies knew nothing was already hard to believe given that they have been cooperating with American agencies for decades. According to an NSA document from this January, cooperation between the offensive divisions of the NSA and the BND's "Technical Reconnaissance" unit began long ago in 1962.

The Americans are extremely satisfied with the Germans. For decades, Washington poked fun at the conscientious German spies, who always had a legal decree on hand to justify why they were regrettably unable to participate in an especially delicate operation. This was a source of annoyance to the Americans, but ultimately they had no choice but to accept it.

More recently, however, that has changed, as the Snowden documents indicate: The German bureaucrats have become real spies.

During the course of 2012, in particular, the Germans showed great "eagerness and desire" to improve their surveillance capacities and even "to take risks and to pursue new opportunities for cooperation with the US," according to the NSA documents to which SPIEGEL was given access.

A Close Link

The shift to a more offensive German security policy began in 2007, when Merkel's conservatives were in power in a coalition with the SPD, the so-called "Grand Coalition." Based on information the NSA had passed on to the BfV, German authorities discovered a group of Islamists led by convert Fritz Gelowicz, known as the Sauerland cell. Gelowicz and several of his friends had planned to detonate bombs in Germany. To this day, the German government is grateful to the Americans for the tip.

According to the NSA document, the successful operation created "a significant level of trust" between the NSA and the BfV. Since then, the document reads, there have been "regular US-German analytic exchanges and closer cooperation in tracking both German and non-German extremist targets." The documents show that the NSA also provided several training sessions for BfV agents. The aim was "to improve the BfV's ability to exploit, filter and process domestic data." The hope was to create interfaces so that data could be exchanged on a larger scale -- a cooperation "that could benefit both Germany and the US," the paper reads.

The pact also intensified on German soil. An NSA analyst accredited as a diplomat at the US Embassy in Berlin uses an office at the BfV once a week. According to the document, the analyst's job is to "nurture" the thriving relationship with the BfV. The agent also "facilitates US requirements." In addition, the Germans set up a "communications link" to the NSA to improve ties between agencies.

Personal relationships also intensified. In May alone, just a few weeks before the Snowden revelations began, BfV President Hans-Georg Maassen, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and the 12-member BND delegation paid a visit to NSA headquarters. In the same month, NSA Director General Keith Alexander traveled to Berlin, where he made a stop at the Chancellery, which supervises the BND.

The cooperation went beyond high level visits. According to the papers from the Snowden files which SPIEGEL has seen, the NSA provided the BfV with XKeyscore, and BND officials were also very familiar with the tool, given that their job was to instruct their counterparts with German domestic intelligence on how to use the spy program. The main reason the BfV was to be provided with XKeyscore was to "expand their ability to support NSA as we jointly prosecute CT (counter-terrorism) targets."

A "top secret" presentation dated Feb. 25, 2008, which almost reads like an advertising brochure (the American spies are apparently very proud of the system), reveals all the things XKeyscore was capable of doing already five years ago.

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1. Now what to do?
zkkhan 07/22/2013
Integrity is considered to be the halmark of any national leader. Merkel has shown lack of it. Simply change her with her allied ministers etc.
2. optional
maghlouth 07/22/2013
Denial of knowledge and/or truth among politicians is common and ubiquitous.
3. Well...
Yami no Yami 07/22/2013
Quote: "Based on information the NSA had passed on to the BfV, German authorities discovered a group of Islamists led by convert Fritz Gelowicz, known as the Sauerland cell. Gelowicz and several of his friends had planned to detonate bombs in Germany. To this day, the German government is grateful to the Americans for the tip." I think, I remember having read somewhere, that it is not at all clear, if this was a "real" terroristic cell or something initiated by under-cover CIA-agents. This thing is very fishy and has all of the flavour of being staged, sorry, NSA. And I am sorry for Germany, as our Governement is a bunch of power-hungry, servile, lying boasters, whose only aim seems to be trying to herd the citizens as well-fed voting-cattle. WE WON'T COMPLY!
4. optional
peskyvera 07/22/2013
Not bad enough having to contend with all these discoveries, what is most annoying are all the damn lies.
5. So much hope for Germany...
zard002 07/22/2013
I was hoping that Germany can do something about this. Now it came out that it is in bed with the Americans. So sad. Is there any country in the Western world can say no to this? Or are they all too tempted with the new power the NSA gave them? Sad sad sad day for humanity.
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