Just a few days ago, the man whom many Germans now see as one of the greatest villains in the world visited Berlin. Keith Alexander, the head of the world's most powerful intelligence operation, the National Security Agency (NSA), had arranged meetings with important representatives of the German government, including top-ranking officials in Germany's intelligence agencies and leading representatives of the Chancellery and the Interior Ministry.
Alexander gave his usual presentation about how the world could be more effectively spied on and allegedly made safer. At such presentations, the NSA chief likes to extol the virtues of his agency's "incredible technical expertise," and he urges allies to invest more in controlling and monitoring today's new technologies. Alexander maintains there has to be more intensive surveillance of the Internet.
But while they were still chatting about the Internet in Berlin government offices, news stories were breaking around the world that Alexander's NSA may already have the Web firmly under its control. A former US intelligence official named Edward Snowden had leaked information to the press on the virtually all-encompassing Prism online surveillance program.
The world soon learned that Alexander's NSA, with the help of direct access to the servers of US Internet giants, is able to secretly read, record and store nearly every type of digital communication worldwide. The public also discovered that the Americans have a preference for spying on Germany -- more so than on any other country in Europe. During the days of the Cold War, when Germans referred to the US as "big brother" it had a positive connotation. Now, that term has an entirely different meaning.
Snowden's leak raises important questions: How much surveillance of the Internet is a free society willing or able to tolerate? Does the fear of attacks justify a comprehensive monitoring of e-mails, search queries on Google and conversations on Skype? And can a country like Germany allow its citizens to be spied on by another country?
'The State Cannot Look Away'
Surveillance cannot be based on blind faith in a democracy, but rather on a wide degree of acceptance by informed citizens, politicians and allied countries. This is by no means the case with Prism.
There are plenty of reasons to venture a confrontation with the Americans over this issue, particularly in Germany, where there has been a greater awareness of the importance of data protection than elsewhere in the world, and where citizens have engaged in heated debates over routine data collection efforts such as the national census.
"When foreign agencies infringe upon fundamental rights on German territory, the state cannot look away," says Dieter Deiseroth, a judge at Germany's Federal Administrative Court. "Accepting the massive collection of private information would be a serious violation of the principle that every state has to defend such rights," he contends.
Will Revelations Disrupt Obama Visit?
Yet the German government and German intelligence agencies are reacting in such a blasé manner to the intrigues of their visitor from the NSA that it's as if they have been told something as banal as the notion that English is "de facto" the official language of the US.
The revelations appeared to be unpleasant for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was presumably concerned that the news could disrupt this week's carefully choreographed visit to Berlin by US President Barack Obama. During an internal discussion, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert reacted almost indignantly when the Justice Ministry urged an inquiry into the matter -- the only German ministry to make such a demand. Publicly, though, Seibert merely said that this "annoying" matter had to be thoroughly examined and that this review process remained ongoing. Furthermore, the Interior Ministry announced that it was discussing the issue with US agencies. Genuine concern would have sounded different.
Why is the German government reacting so calmly to something that it should find alarming? Perhaps because these revelations are nothing new for it? Because the Germans would like to enjoy the same capabilities that Prism affords the Americans? Or because our friends from the other side of the Atlantic so readily share their knowledge about the world and its villains with us?
Germans Would Like To Spy More
All of these motives probably play a role. The truth is that the Germans would love to be able to engage in more online espionage. Until now, the only thing missing has been the means to do so. Consequently, an outraged reaction from Berlin would have seemed fairly hypocritical.
Roughly half a dozen countries maintain intelligence agencies like the NSA that operate on a global scale. In addition to the Americans, this includes the Russians, Chinese, British, French and -- to a lesser extent -- Israelis and Germans. They have all placed the Internet at the heart of their surveillance operations. The vision of a wildly proliferating, grassroots, democratic Internet with totally secluded niches has long since become a thing of the past. Tomorrow's world is a digital habitat where even the most far-flung corners are exposed to outside eyes, and where everything can be stored for posterity -- and actually is stored, as with Prism.
What is surprising about the NSA's program is its size and professionalism. The objective here is also shared by agencies in other countries, above all the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, which is currently significantly extending its capabilities. Last year, BND head Gerhard Schindler told the Confidential Committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, about a secret program that, in his opinion, would make his agency a major international player. Schindler said the BND wanted to invest €100 million ($133 million) over the coming five years. The money is to finance up to 100 new jobs in the technical surveillance department, along with enhanced computing capacities. This may sound like a pauper's version of the Prism program, but it represents one of the most ambitious modernization projects in the BND's history, and has been given the ambitious German name Technikaufwuchsprogramm (literally "Technological Coming-of-Age Program").
Germany 's Mini-NSA
By the end of 2018, the German agency intends to become a kind of mini-NSA and finally be able to compete in the global espionage business. Legislators have already approved €5 million for 2014, but are still wrangling over the rest of the funding.
"Of course our intelligence agencies also have to be present on the Internet," says Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "It is unacceptable that criminals are arming themselves technologically, using the Internet more and more efficiently -- and we, the state, can do nothing to stop them," says Friedrich, adding that the German government has to ensure "that we use new legal and technological approaches to compensate for our dwindling control over communications among criminals."
Until now, the monitoring capabilities of the BND have been much more modest than those of its big brother, the NSA, but they basically work according to the same principles. At key junctions for digital traffic in the country, the German foreign intelligence agency has set up its own technical accesses. They work like a police inspection on the Autobahn: A portion of the data stream is diverted to a parking lot and checked. Copies of the flagged-down data are directly forwarded to BND headquarters in Pullach, near Munich, where they are more carefully examined.
The largest traffic control takes place in Frankfurt, in a data processing center owned by the Association of the German Internet Industry. Via this hub, the largest in Europe, e-mails, phone calls, Skype conversations and text messages flow from regions that interest the BND like Russia and Eastern Europe, along with crisis areas like Somalia, countries in the Middle East, and states like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
German law allows the BND to monitor any form of communication that has a foreign element, be it a mobile phone conversation, a Facebook chat or an exchange via AOL Messenger. For the purposes of "strategic communications surveillance," the foreign intelligence agency is allowed to copy and review 20 percent of this data traffic. There is even a regulation requiring German providers "to maintain a complete copy of the telecommunications."
A Daunting Wealth of Information
In contrast to the NSA, though, the German intelligence agency has been overwhelmed by this daunting wealth of information. Last year, it monitored just under 5 percent, roughly every 20th phone call, every 20th e-mail and every 20th Facebook exchange. In the year 2011, the BND used over 16,000 search words to fish in this data stream. According to BND experts, over 90 percent of these are "formal" search criteria like phone numbers, e-mail addresses and IP addresses that lead to mobile phones and computers owned by private Internet users or companies that the BND suspects of engaging in illegal activities.
German Internet surfers are officially off-limits. If e-mail addresses surface that end in ".de" (for Germany), they have to be erased. The international dialing code for Germany, 0049, and IP addresses that were apparently given to customers in Germany also pass through the net. The idea here is to avoid infringing upon civil rights that are guaranteed in Germany -- analogous to the US, where the full weight of the surveillance state should not fall on its own citizens, but rather on foreigners.
During day-to-day Internet usage, though, it's hard to differentiate between "German" and "non-German." At first glance, it's not evident where users live whose information is saved by Yahoo, Google or Apple. And how are the agencies supposed to spot a Taliban commander who has acquired an email address with German provider GMX? Meanwhile, the status of Facebook chats and conversations on Skype remains completely unclear.
Following the use of this initial, loosely-woven net, BND investigators cast a finer one. Now, they are looking for concrete keywords. If anything touching on the area of proliferation comes up, for instance, the computer system sounds an alarm, such as when the names of certain chemicals are mentioned, or ingredients that Iran could use in its nuclear program. In recent years, BND officials have continuously refined their investigative methods. In 2010, the BND read some 37 million e-mails, including a torrent of spam. The fine-tuning was somewhat better in 2011, when only 2.9 million e-mails were caught in the net. Last year, only roughly 900,000 e-mails were diverted. While the Germans only sift through and evaluate a portion of the intercepted communication, and store just a fraction of this as relevant, the Americans collect everything, at least according to the recent leaks. In the US the basic principle appears to be that stored data is good data. Data protection authorities say that this basically flies in the face of the right to "informational self-determination."
Nevertheless, the official indignation over Prism has remained largely muted, partly because German authorities often benefit from the Americans' secrets. Information from the NSA has played a role in nearly every major German terrorist case over the past decade. For example, it helped lead to the arrest and conviction of the would-be terrorists in Germany's so-called "Sauerland cell," led by Fritz Gelowicz. In 2006, the NSA intercepted email traffic between Germany and Pakistan. The trail led to a group of German Islamists who were planning deadly bomb attacks in Germany.
All of this is vaguely reminiscent of the CIA's practice of torturing terror suspects. German intelligence agencies gladly accepted the results of "enhanced interrogation techniques," even if they preferred not to know exactly how this information was obtained.
The importance of the NSA to the German government was exemplified not only by agency head Alexander's stopover at the Chancellery, but also by a longer visit by German Interior Minister Friedrich at NSA headquarters in early May.
Still, one has to wonder whether the German government shouldn't better protect its citizens against foreign intelligence agencies like the NSA -- and whether it shouldn't at least show a modicum of interest in its secret programs.
Only One German Minister Criticizes Prism
"There are more questions than answers," says German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party. In a letter sent to European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding, she wrote that the alarming news had "sparked concern and indignation" in Germany. So far, though, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is the only member of the government to openly criticize the NSA practices. "President Obama has to provide a clarification," she says. "I am sure that Chancellor Merkel will ask some critical questions of Obama," she concludes.
Merkel could ask, for instance, why Europe's economic powerhouse is subjected to a similar degree of scrutiny as leading autocracies like China and Iran -- and what the legal basis for this is. She could also ask why the NSA monitors no other European country more intensively than its loyal ally Germany.
In any case, she will have to ask better questions than those posed by Cornelia Rogall-Grothe, a state secretary in the German Interior Ministry, who wrote last Tuesday on behalf of her ministry to the US Embassy in Berlin. Her queries read like an official declaration of helplessness -- or routine devotion to duty. "Are US agencies running a program or computer system with the name Prism?," the Interior Ministry official asked. She could have also asked if New York was located in the US. It sounded like a clueless request from the German government.
A Blind Eye
This attitude has a long tradition. When it comes to the thorny issue of American surveillance of German citizens, German politicians have never been courageous. Claus Arndt is a legal expert who served from 1968 to 1999 on the Bundestag's G-10 Commission, which decides on surveillance measures by intelligence agencies. He says that top politicians have never made an issue of surveillance by the Americans, and that they all "did their best to stick their heads in the sand." Perhaps it is this sense of fatalism that still influences certain government representatives today.
The special relationship between both countries dates back to the days of the Cold War. The Federal Republic of Germany had the Americans to thank for its security, if not for its very existence. In return, the authorities tended to turn a blind eye when American intelligence agencies operated on German soil. During this period, the allies secured wide-ranging surveillance rights in Germany, many of which are still valid today.
The Germans only objected when the Americans became far too brazen. Prior to the visit of US President Gerald Ford in Bonn in 1975, a team from the US intelligence agency insisted that it had to check that everything was in order at Palais Schaumburg, the former Chancellery, to ensure the president's safety. But then two men were caught fiddling with the phone lines. The head of the Chancellery threw the men out of the building.
But kicking someone out the door has become considerably more difficult in this age of online espionage. What's more, it requires wanting to eject someone in the first place.
REPORTED BY MELANIE AMANN, SVEN BECKER, MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, HUBERT GUDE, JÖRG SCHINDLER, HOLGER STARK AND KLAUS WIEGREFE