The scandal in Germany surrounding spying activities by the United States' National Security Agency took a surprising twist on Thursday. A report by a German mass-circulation daily that described the use of a program called Prism in NATO-occupied Afghanistan has led to the German Defense Ministry contradicting the foreign intelligence agency BND.
It started on Wednesday when the broadsheet Bild reported that the American intelligence service NSA had deployed the controversial data-collection tool Prism in Afghanistan and that Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, knew of the program by the autumn of 2011 at the latest.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert, speaking on behalf of the BND, was quick to deny the Bild report. He said on Wednesday that the software which had been used in Afghanistan was part of "a NATO/ISAF program and was not the same as the NSA's Prism program." Seibert said the programs were "not identical." According to Seibert's account, there are two different Prism programs -- the much discussed NSA Prism program, which has been used in recent years to intensively monitor German communications, as well as an ISAF program for Afghanistan.
But the Defense Ministry is now contradicting that characterization. In a two-page memo obtained by several German media outlets, Rüdiger Wolf, a high-ranking ministry official, states that the Prism program used in Afghanistan is a "computer-aided US planning and information analysis tool" used for the coordination of "American intelligence systems," that is "operated exclusively by US personnel" and is "used Afghanistan-wide by the US side."
Prism Accessible Exclusively to Americans
Wolf describes in detail how the Bundeswehr and NATO have no access to the US program. He adds that while there may be computer terminals at the German base in Mazar-e-Sharif that are equipped to access the program, they can only be used by Americans.
If members of the Bundeswehr wanted access to information, they had to send a special form to the IJC command center in Kabul, almost entirely controlled by the US Army -- that is, if they wanted US data that went beyond the information possessed by NATO intelligence. When they got the data back, "the origin of the information" was "fundamentally unrecognizable" to the Germans.
It is precisely such procedures that Bild reported on this week, citing a classified September NATO order. In the paper, NATO members, including the German-led Regional Command North in Afghanistan, are called upon to direct requests for the "Prism" system to American personnel -- military or civilian (which in this case is a reference to intelligence workers) because NATO has no access to the system. Given that Bild printed a copy of the order in its newspaper, the BND's portrayal already seemed odd on Wednesday.
According to Wolf's own admissions, the Germans don't know very much about the Prism program in Afghanistan. It is unclear, for example, how Prism is deployed at the US Army-dominated headquarters in Kabul and the ministry doesn't know the "extent of use." However, Wolf once more reiterated that all information obtained from intelligence sources served to protect German soldiers -- including "insights provided by the US side that could have come from Prism."
A Slap in the Face
The Defense Ministry is also very cautious compared to the BND when it comes to deferentiating the Prism program in Afghanistan from the Prism spying program that was exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and involves the systematic monitoring of German communications. The information supplied by the US would have pertained only to the situation in Afghanistan. It was "not a data fishing expedition" on German citizens, according to the memo, and in fact had "no proximity" to the NSA surveillance program in Germany and Europe.
With his cautious formulation, Wolf deliberately avoids saying whether or not the two programs are identical.
This representation of the facts, which was already made to some extent on Wednesday by Defense Ministry spokesman Stefan Paris, is like a slap in the face for the BND. Shortly after Seibert appeared at the press conference, insiders wondered why the intelligence agency would so unambiguously commit itself to the position that the Prism program in Afghanistan is part of the composite ISAF system. But the BND didn't pull back on its position, although Paris clearly said that the Prism program in Afghanistan is operated exclusively by Americans.
Members of the opposition were quick to attack the BND for its assertions. "The Chancellery, acting on behalf of the BND, deliberately lied to the public on Wednesday," Green Party defense expert Omid Nouripour told SPIEGEL ONLINE. According to Nouripour, Wolf's description makes it clear that there is no NATO Prism program. The German government, he says, should stop making excuses and finally begin to seriously investigate the spying scandal.