Codependent Merkel's Pragmatic Approach to the NSA Scandal
Part 2: No Signs of Regret
During a meeting with Feinstein attended by German European parliamentarian Elmar Brok, NSA chief Keith Alexander indirectly admitted to spying on the German chancellor. After Feinstein asked three times whether Merkel's cellphone was tapped, participants say that Alexander responded: "Not anymore." In other words, there was definitely spying in the past. The NSA has declined to comment on the issue.
Alexander showed no signs of regret, however. On the contrary, in his opinion "nothing that has been released has shown that we are trying to do something illegal or unprofessional," as he said last week before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. Obama's director of national intelligence, James Clapper also testified: "We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes." He said he thought the US was doing "the right thing."
When asked by the chairman of the committee, Republican Mike Rogers, whether the CIA or the NSA were capable of using their own criteria for surveillance -- in other words, whether these agencies were acting at times independently and without political oversight -- Clapper replied: "No, absolutely not."
The Intelligence Score Card
Clapper's response means that Obama has some explaining to do. The president has tried to present himself as someone who is interested in clearing up the whole spying scandal. He said that he knew nothing about the tapping of Merkel's cellphone -- and he even apologized to her. But the NSA does not act within a vacuum. It adheres to strict guidelines that the White House has spelled out in the so-called National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF).
Until recently, this list was only known to a small group of insiders. Last week, though, the issue made its way onto the "Daily Show," hosted by TV comedian Jon Stewart. Previously, an NSA spokeswoman had explained that spying missions were not ordered directly by the president, but via the NIPF.
"What the hell is that?", asked Stewart. He then wondered: "If the president doesn't know what's actually happening, how does he run the country?"
The NIPF is effectively the wish list that the government sends to its intelligence agencies. It determines which countries and which governments should be spied on -- and with what level of priority. The list forms the political foundation for the spying activities of all 17 US intelligence agencies.
It was first drawn up in 2003 under President Bush. Since then, this list has been updated every six months. This is done by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but only with top-level endorsement from the Oval Office. According to internal NSA documents, the list is "presidentially approved." SPIEGEL has obtained a copy of the list, dated April 2013, from the archives of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The espionage targets are organized and color coded according to their priority. The intentions of the political leaders of foreign countries are given the highest priority tier "1" -- on par with fighting terror and gathering information about weapons of mass destruction.
Germany figures in the middle of this international intelligence score card, on the same tier as France and Japan, but as a greater concern than Italy and Spain. In the eyes of US intelligence agencies, German foreign policy, along with financial and economic issues, are both rated with a "3." Furthermore, the NSA is interested in Germany's arms control, new technologies, highly developed conventional weapons and international trade, which all have priority "4." Of only minor interest are counterespionage by Germany and threats from cyberspace (priority "5").
Some countries like Cambodia, Laos and the Vatican are completely uninteresting from an American perspective, as are many European countries like Finland, Croatia, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. These countries are all marked in white, with no priority whatsoever.
Countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Sweden, Uzbekistan and Malaysia are only marginally interesting according to the espionage rating list. The US focuses here in isolated issues, but only to a minor degree. The topics in question are rated with a "4" or a "5."
A 'Strategic Advantage'
Insiders in Washington have known for a long time how intensively the US spies on foreign governments. During the previous fiscal year, US intelligence agencies had to tighten their belts. While the budget shrank by $1.3 billion (960 million), spying on foreign governments was one of the areas in which the White House actually increased spending.
"We are bolstering our support for clandestine SIGINT capabilities to collect against high priority targets, including foreign leadership," it says in a top-secret draft budget for 2013 that Director of Intelligence Clapper presented to Congress. He said the goal here was to maintain a "strategic advantage."
Clapper, who sat across from the German delegation as a negotiating partner last Wednesday, feels that spying on Merkel and her entourage is completely normal. "It's invaluable to us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are, how that would impact us across a whole range of issues," Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee, adding: "It isn't just leaders themselves, it's what goes on around them."
The Germans arguably have every reason to tell the Americans that that they are fed up. Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BFV, is responsible for counterespionage in Germany, and it would be at least theoretically conceivable that this agency could be mobilized against the US surveillance apparatus. But no high-ranking politician among Merkel's conservatives or the left-leaning SPD is calling for such a measure.
There is little that the German government fears more than the fury of its partner in Washington. If the Americans were to shut off the flow of information out of revenge, "we would be partially blind," says a high-ranking German security official.
A Codependent Relationship
In fact, an internal German government statistical study shows just how closely German and American spies have been collaborating for years -- and how dependent the Germans are on the support of their trans-Atlantic partner. This is particularly true when it comes to Islamist terrorism. A large proportion of the relevant knowledge here comes from the UK, Israel and the US.
Furthermore, the NSA provides the BND with a constant flow of information on flashpoints like Pakistan and North Africa. This intelligence concerns arms and drug trafficking, organized crime in Russia and illegal immigration from places like the Balkans. In 2012, the NSA supplied the BND with 750 reports on these issues. During the same year, the German foreign intelligence service received 4,538 information packages from the CIA, along with 2,169 from the Central Command of the US Armed Forces and 519 from the Defense Intelligence Agency. The BFV is also grateful for every bit of information that it receives from US intelligence agencies. Last year, this amounted to 1,830 reports. According to internal sources, it was only thanks to help from the Americans that it was possible to prevent devastating attacks on German soil.
In January 2013, a Berlin court found German Yusuf O. and Austrian Maqsood L. guilty of being members of the terrorist organizations German Taliban Mujahedeen and al-Qaida, and sentenced them to long prison terms. Currently, four suspected al-Qaida members are being tried in the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court on charges of planning a "spectacular terrorist attack" in Germany. In both cases the Americans reportedly provided vital intelligence.
The Germans are also becoming increasingly dependent on the US for cutting-edge technology. For instance, the Americans are providing the BND, as well as the BFV, with access to their XKeyscore intelligence mega-software. In return, the BFV has agreed to go easy on American citizens. In its contractual obligations with the Americans it states that the intelligence agency will use XKeyscore "and ensure that the software is not used to target US citizens."
Nevertheless, some politicians in Berlin are no longer comfortable with the notion that they are at the mercy of US intelligence agencies. CDU domestic policy expert Clemens Binninger fully supports the idea of exclusively routing German data traffic through autonomous networks in the future. But that's not enough, says Binninger: "In addition to the requisite collaboration in collecting information, our goal must be to become largely independent," he contends. His counterpart in the SPD, Michael Hartmann, takes a similar view: "Our services have to be state-of-the-art, both in terms of technology and personnel, so we can generate our own results."
There have been initiatives like this in the past. In 2008, August Hanning, a senior official at the German Interior Ministry at the time, pressed ahead with plans for the creation of a German headquarters for telecommunications surveillance, modeled after the NSA, and located in the western German city of Cologne.
According to Hanning's plans, the German federal police, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, the BFV and the BND were to pool their resources. The BND declined to participate in the scheme -- and after critics warned that the planned miniature German NSA violated national laws preserving the separation of the police and intelligence agencies, then-Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) buried the project. Hanning remains adamant that it was a mistake: "I still believe that it was a sound project. We should be less dependent on America," he argues.
Today many politicians and officials in Berlin are harkening back to Hanning's idea. A project like that could be "the nucleus for independence," says a high-ranking German security official. And even in the Interior Ministry there is speculation over how Germany could acquire sovereignty in the world of espionage. A roundtable discussion group has been meeting since April to discuss upgrading Germany's technical facilities.
Following her initial dismay, the chancellor has come to terms with the fact that painful sanctions imposed on the Americans would be counterproductive for Germany. Instead, she can console herself with practical thoughts. Merkel has just won an election victory, and she can look forward to at least another four years as chancellor. Obama, on the other hand, is already one year into his last term in office. In two years, at the latest, he will be a lame duck president at major international summits, whereas Merkel will be received as Europe's most powerful woman.
BY RALF NEUKIRCH, RENÉ PFISTER, LAURA POITRAS, MARCEL ROSENBACH, JÖRG SCHINDLER, FIDELIUS SCHMID AND HOLGER STARK.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: Merkel's Pragmatic Approach to the NSA Scandal
- Part 2: No Signs of Regret