NSA Blowback Counterespionage Pushed to Step Up

Amid the continuing NSA scandal, the German intelligence community is being pushed to do more to counter US spying. But with limited resources and a complex bureaucracy, that may not be easy.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution faces growing pressure to step up its counterespionage measures.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution faces growing pressure to step up its counterespionage measures.

Foto: Oliver Berg/ picture alliance / dpa

Perhaps the proudest moment in the recent history of German counterespionage was a stealth operation conducted in October 2011, when an elite GSG 9 unit crept into an unremarkable, white-painted house in the city of Marburg and caught a housewife operating a short-wave radio. The woman was so startled, she fell off her chair.

The 47-year-old, who went by the name Heidrun Anschlag, and her husband Andreas, allegedly 53, were agents working for the Russian foreign intelligence agency SVR. For years, they lived a quiet, inconspicuous life in Germany, all the while reporting back to Moscow. In July 2013, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court sentenced the couple, who have a daughter, to five and a half years and six years in prison, respectively. Since then, the Anschlags have been left hoping a proposed exchange of agents will go through, and complaining about the prison food in Germany's federal state of Baden-Württemberg.

US Is Frequent Source of Intelligence

As much as the successful search that led to the Anschlags' arrest pleased German authorities, a great deal of the credit for the operation actually goes to Germany's ally, the United States . As is so often the case, Germany's big brother provided the crucial intelligence that led to the operation. Similarly, in the case of Manfred K., currently on trial at the Koblenz Higher Regional Court for treason and espionage, it was NATO that alerted German authorities.

One could easily get the impression that German counterespionage agents aren't entirely capable of doing their jobs without outside help.

Primary responsibility for counterespionage in Germany lies with Division Four of the country's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV). The division's staff of around 100 specialized agents, who mostly work out of a gray-brown concrete building in the Chorweiler district of Cologne, are considered time-tested experts on Russian intelligence agencies.

A current report from Division Four reads, "The primary nations currently conducting espionage against Germany are the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China," as well as countries in the Middle East -- meaning Syria, Iran and Pakistan. It is unknown exactly how many spies, agents and informers in total are currently active in Germany, but it may well be thousands.

Intelligence agencies from allied nations, such as the US, however, have hardly been on the BFV's radar. Systematic surveillance of "allied intelligence agencies" is not performed, the report states, explaining that only if indications of espionage emerge does Germany act upon these suspicions. It is that approach that is now drawing criticism.

Fragmented System

The assertion on the part of Germany's counterintelligence agencies that they knew nothing of the US' spying  has met with disbelief. Some are now calling for these authorities to step up their counterespionage efforts and take a close look at what their allies' intelligence agencies are doing. This begs the question, however, of where exactly to find the staff and funding for such measures. Budgets are limited and there is already a high priority -- also a result of considerable political pressure -- placed on the target areas of terrorism and right-wing extremism.

Another aspect that experts find problematic is the fragmented, federal structure of German counterintelligence. In addition to the BFV, the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) -- Germany's foreign intelligence agency -- and the country's 16 state-level counterparts to the BFV likewise have areas of nominal jurisdiction. But these latter organizations in particular rarely have enough personnel to put up much resistance to enemy agencies.

German federal-level counterintelligence agents have tried to deal with this chaos by holding regular conferences. In late 2012, the various agencies agreed to meet and make joint decisions four times a year, either at the BFV's headquarters in Cologne or at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in nearby Meckenheim. So far, though, not much has come of that plan, says one person who was present when the agreement was reached.

Need for Internal Discussion

"It's inexplicable in any case why state-level authorities are allowed to get involved in counterespionage," one federal-level agent with the BND criticizes. The intelligence-gathering interests of enemy agents, the agent points out, concern not individual states such as Bremen or Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but rather the interests of Germany as a whole. "But of course no state-level interior minister would voluntarily give up authority, and the positions that go with it," the agent says.

Still, it seems likely that the BFV will engage in internal discussions on where exactly German counterespionage should go from here. Officially, there has been no word on this subject. But President Hans-Georg Maassen announced plans a while ago to considerably improve his agency's protections against cyber attacks, an issue that touches on the subject of espionage as well, since foreign agencies are increasingly attacking computer networks as a way to access the information they seek.

"Due to its geopolitical position, its economic strength, its level of scientific and technological development and its increasing international significance, Germany is likely to be and remain a favorite target for foreign intelligence agencies," reads a classified BfV report. This makes cyber attacks on government computers likely, the report continues. It makes no mention, however, of telephones.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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