07/17/2013 10:48 AM

NSA Scandal

Merkel's Interior Minister Not Up to the Job

By and

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has been tasked with investigating the full scope of NSA spying activities in Germany. But his failure to make progress has cranked up the pressure on him and Chancellor Merkel to finally do something.

Finally, he wants to go on the offensive and initiate something of his own. And to do so, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has brought along a few ideas regarding what could be done about "all these data privacy things." They include new rules in Europe, a trans-Atlantic treaty and a charter of fundamental digital rights. It is a long list.

The ideas are not at all bad. But once again, Friedrich is late to the party. Others have already had the same ideas, including both the justice minister and the chancellor. Still, there is at least one advantage to throwing himself behind the data privacy effort. It means he won't have to talk as much about his actual job: that of providing clarification in the NSA spying scandal.

That was the real reason why Friedrich had been invited to German parliament on Tuesday. For two-and-a-half hours, he answered questions from the Parliamentary Control Panel -- which is tasked with monitoring Germany's intelligence services -- on what he learned during his recent trip to the US about America's spying activities in Germany. The problem was, however, that Friedrich didn't bring all that much back from Washington. And what he did learn is highly classified and couldn't be discussed in parliament.

Instead, Friedrich was forced to hail the fact that accusations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden to the effect that the NSA is collecting up to500 million communications connections a month in Germany are "now being investigated by US authorities." Details remain classified, but he said he hoped that the ongoing declassification process in Washington will provide some clarification.

Data Collection Cooperation

But insiders say that, even behind closed doors, Friedrich had few revelations to offer on the spying affair. The only one to offer specifics of any kind was Gerhard Schindler, the president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency. According to participants, Schindler confirmed that his agency was cooperating with allied agencies in other countries. In situations such as overseas kidnappings, more than a dozen partner services generally cooperate on data collection, he said.

But the BND, Schindler said according to meeting participants, never receives any information about sources of information or individual programs. Friedrich also emphasized once again that he had been unaware of programs like Prism. "When it comes to key issues," says Green Party domestic policy expert Hans-Christian Ströbele, "we still don't know anything more."

Friedrich, of course, is in a difficult position. Chancellor Angela Merkel has used strong language in condemning the NSA spying program and demanded that the US abide by German law when operating in Germany. But it is Friedrich who has to travel to Washington, where he was, as had been expected, fobbed off with politely packaged non-information. Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung was harsh in its verdict as a result, calling him the "idiot in charge."

But Friedrich has done little to counter the widespread impression that he is not particularly devoted to clearing up the NSA scandal. He is loathe to offend the Americans and also is a big supporter of active intelligence agencies. He is, simply put, the wrong person to be leading the German probe into excess American surveillance activities. Instead, he insists that Germans themselves must do more to protect their own digital data and refers to security as a "Supergrundrecht," a neologism that would seem to imply that security trumps other civil rights.

Friedrich in the Terrorism Trap

Friedrich has also run into trouble with his attempts to point out how valuable information provided by the NSA can be for Germany. Forty-five terror attacks, he announced following his US trip late last week, have been prevented by the Prism program, including five in Germany. But he has been back-peddling since then, unable to pinpoint the five instances. Two are clear -- the foiled "Sauerland Cell", which had planned a series of bombings in 2007, and the Düsseldorf al-Qaida cell. But that is where his list ends -- US officials apparently didn't provide further details, and Friedrich didn't ask any follow-up questions.

Even among Friedrich's conservative allies, many find his maladroit use of the numbers to be unconvincing. Hans-Peter Uhl, a domestic policy expert with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Friedrich's political home, called it "rubbish," though he placed more blame with the NSA than with the minister himself.

The Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner, have been more direct with their criticism. "What we are seeing (from Friedrich) isn't good enough," says FDP domestic policy expert Gisela Piltz, who is calling for a task force at the Chancellery. She would like to see Merkel to take the investigation into her own hands.

That is something the opposition has long been calling for. "The chancellor needs to apply more pressure on the issue of clarification. We need concrete facts," says Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary floor leader of the opposition, center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD and the Greens have also reserved the right to summon Merkel herself to appear before the oversight committee. That decision will be made in another special session, probably in early August.

By then, of course, the chancellor will be far away from Berlin, enjoying her summer vacation.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission