Chancellor Angela Merkel's government faces uncomfortable questions about German involvement in American and British Internet and telephone surveillance after whistleblower Edward Snowden told SPIEGEL that German agencies and the NSA are "in bed together."
With a general election due in 11 weeks, the controversy has opened up a new battleground in the campaign, and the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party are charging onto it.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel said it could be that Merkel "knows more than has become known so far."
Thomas Oppermann, a senior member of the SPD, called on the government to cancel surveillance cooperation agreements with the United States. Hans-Christian Ströbele, a lawmaker with the Greens, said he didn't believe the government's statements that it didn't know about the spying.
"For me it's just a matter of time before the government admits something," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Petra Pau of the Left Party said Merkel should stop "pretending she knew nothing."
The parliament's oversight committee monitoring German intelligence activities has met three times since the revelations came to light, and each time senior government representatives who had been called to testify shrugged their shoulders.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution -- Germany's domestic intelligence agency -- the BND foreign intelligence agency, and Merkel's Chancellery were all apparently unaware of what has been going on. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he knew nothing but made clear that the data fishing by Germany's American friends was bound to be OK. Criticism of it, he said, amounted to "anti-Americanism."
Germany Cooperates Closely With NSA
But Snowden told SPIEGEL that the BND knew more about the activities of the NSA in Germany than previously known.
SPIEGEL reporting also indicates that cooperation between the NSA and Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, is more intensive than previously known.
A lot is at stake for Europe and the US. This week talks will begin on the planned trans-Atlantic free trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Invesment Partnership (TTIP). The Americans' snooping could endanger the project.
The Snowden case is entering its next round. At first he revealed how the NSA spes on data networks. Last week SPIEGEL reported that the US was also spying on its allies including Germany. Now the controversy has broadened to include whether the allies themselves are involved in the snooping.
There are times when the inner workings of the world suddenly come to light. Veils fall to the ground and the world suddenly looks different. These are such times.
A man does something that represents the best traditions of the West -- he enlightens people, points out wrongdoing and opens eyes. That's what Edward Snowden has done. And what's happening to him? The West's leading nation, the US, is hunting him down, and almost every country is going along with it, especially the rest of the West.
Western Nations Kow-Towing to US
Fear is governing the world, fear of the wrath of the US, fear of President Barack Obama who was once hailed as a global savior. Few seem ready to dare to take on the political and economic superpower.
The West is making itself look ridiculous through submissiveness, by failing to live up to its own values. Meanwhile, states like China or Russia, the constant focus of Western moral finger-wagging, were the first where Snowden sought shelter.
Last Wednesday, Merkel and Obama had a telephone conversation in which both tried to play down the row. There would be "opportunities for an intense exchange about these questions," officials said afterwards. That wasn't the tough talking that 78 percent of Germans are demanding of Merkel in her dealings with the US on the issue, according to a recent opinion poll by Infratest Dimap.
This week a German government delegation will travel to Washington for talks with the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA and the US administration. They hope to glean information on what has been going on. When German opposition parties complained that the delegation only consisted of second-tier officials, Interior Minister Friedrich hastily decided to join them.
9/11 Silenced Criticism of 'Echelon' Spying System
Foreign data snooping has caused outrage in Germany and Europe before. Twelve years ago, a European Parliament committee criticized "Echelon," which it described as a "global surveillance system for private and business communcations." In a 200-page report, the committee said that within Europe, all communications via email, telephone and fax were regularly monitored by the intelligence services of the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.
The European lawmakers recommended a series of rules and agreements to curb the snooping. But two months later, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and it quickly emerged that some of them had lived in Germany. All criticism of "Echelon" fell abruptly silent.
But the German government, despite all its current protestations of ignorance and innocence, cannot be unaware that US surveillance specialists remain active on German soil. At present the NSA is expanding its presence in Germany considerably.
The best-known monitoring facility is in the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling, extensively described in the "Echelon" report. Officially, the Americans gave up the listening post in 2004. But the white domes of the "Echelon" system, known as radomes, are still there. When the site was officially turned over to civilian use, that didn't apply to the area with the snooping technology. A connecting cable now transmits the captured signals to the site of the Mangfall army base a few hundred meters away. This is officially a German army communications base -- but in truth it belongs to the BND. Cooperating closely with a handful of NSA surveillance specialists, the German foreign intelligence service analyzes telephone calls, faxes and everything else transmitted via satellite.
BND Admits Monitoring Cooperation With NSA
Officially, the BND post in Bad Aibling doesn't exist, and neither does the local cooperation with the Americans. But in a confidential meeting with the parliament's intelligence oversight committee, BND head Gerhard Schindler last Wednesday confirmed the cooperation with the US service,
There are other locations in Germany where the Americans engage in data monitoring. The US army runs a top secret lstening post in the town of Griesheim near Darmstadt, in western Germany. Five radomes stand on the edge of the August-Euler airfield, hidden behind a little forest. If you drive past "Dagger Complex" you get suspicious looks from security guards. It's forbidden to take photos. Inside, soldiers analyze information for the armed forces in Europe. The NSA supports the analysts.
The need for data appears to be so great that the US army is building a new Consolidated Intelligence Center in the nearby city of Wiesbaden. The $124 million building will house bug-proof offices and a high-tech control center. As soon as it's completed, "Dagger Complex" will be shut down. Only US construction firms are being used. Even the building materials are being brought in from the US and closely guarded along the way.
Is it really conceivable that the German government knows nothing of what the NSA is doing on its own doorstep? Last month Interior Minister Friedrich said in a parliamentary debate on the NSA snooping: "Germany has fortunately been spared big attacks in recent years. We owe that in part to the information provided by our American friends." Sentences like that reveal a pragmatic view of the US surveillance apparatus: What the NSA gets up to in detail is secondary -- what counts is what its snooping reveals. And that information, intelligence officials admit, is indispensable.
Without the tip-offs provided by the Americans, authorities would be partly blind in the fight against terrorism. While the BND and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution are bound by strict rules, foreign intelligence agencies operating in Germany are largely uncontrolled in what they do, as long as it serves the war on terror.
Frankfurt's Role as East-West Data Crossroads
The example of Frankfurt, Germany's financial center, illustrates that. Frankfurt is a major crossroads for digital data. This where fiber-optic cables from Eastern Europe and Central Asia meet data lines from Western Europe. Emails, photos, telepone calls and tweets from crisis-hit countries in the Middle East also pass through Frankfurt. This is where international providers -- companies like Deutsche Telekom or US firm Level 3, which claims to transmit a third of the world's Internet traffic -- operate digital hubs.
For agencies like the NSA or BND, Frankfurt is an inexhaustible source of information. Documents provided by Snowden show that the NSA accesses half a billion pieces of communication each month. The BND also helps itself to data here. It is allowed to tap up to 20 percent of it. The service feeds data from five hubs in Germany for analysis to its headquarters in Pullach near Munich. Its analysts comb through the data for phone calls, emails or Internet messages that might uncover a nuclear smuggling deal or an al-Qaida plot.
The BND uses the NSA's help to analyze Internet traffic from the Middle East. The Americans provide the Germans with special tools that work with Arabic search terms. Does the US agency get access to the data in return? The BND denies this. All cooperation is in the form of assessing "finished intelligence," or completed intelligence reports, it insists.
But relations between the BND and NSA are closer than publicly admitted. They work together on clearly defined individual joint operations abroad when it comes to fighting terrorism or monitoring weapons shipments. At the Bad Aibling listening post, an NSA team works closely with BND agents. The BND uses Bad Aibling mainly to monitor Thuraya satellite phones used in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Americans help the Germans in this work. Is it really conceivable that with such close cooperation the one partner didn't know what the other was doing?
US Need Not Fear Much German Criticism
"We have no information so far that Internet hubs in Germany were spied on by the NSA," says the president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen. He also has no information on any snooping on the German government by the US. The agency has set up a working group to investigate Snowden's allegations.
In the end it's relatively insignificant whether any light will be shed on the outflow of German Internet data to the US. The German authorities are unlikely to criticize the Americans too harshly. "We can be blackmailed," said a high-ranking security official. "If the NSA shut off the tap, we'd be blind."
The US isn't just a friend, it's an all-powerful force one can choose to be friends with or not. The Snowden case shows how closely intertwined friendship and submissiveness can be.
SVEN BECKER, THOMAS DARNSTÄDT, JENS GLÜSING, HUBERT GUDE, FRITZ HABEKUSS, KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN, MARC HUJER, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, MATHIEU VON ROHR, MARCEL ROSENBACH, MATTHIAS SCHEPP, JÖRG SCHINDLER, GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, HOLGER STARK