'Secrets Must Remain Secret' German Intelligence Coordinator on NSA and Media Leaks

In a SPIEGEL interview, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier speaks of mistakes made by German intelligence, leaks of confidential information in Berlin and German timidity in the face of US spying.
German intelligence coordinator Peter Altmaier: "The public has a right to learn about mistakes and legal violations."

German intelligence coordinator Peter Altmaier: "The public has a right to learn about mistakes and legal violations."

Foto: HC Plambeck / DER SPIEGEL

SPIEGEL: Mr. Altmaier, as Angela Merkel's chief of staff in the Chancellery, you have supervisory power over Germany's intelligence services. How often do transcripts of conversations that have been tapped by the foreign intelligence agency, the BND, come across your desk?

Altmaier: You make it sound like my life is exciting! Of course I obtain reports and analyses from the intelligence services -- about events in certain crisis regions, for example. That's why the services are there. As far as I can see, there is no democratic country in the world that can afford the luxury of working without a foreign intelligence agency. No one can risk flying blind on important foeign policy issues. But it is not my job to read every single wiretap transcript.

SPIEGEL: Do you know if you are being wiretapped?

Altair: No, I do not know, but I'm also not naïve. There are many intelligence agencies that are interested in knowing what politicians in Germany think and do. The NSA is not alone in that respect.

SPIEGEL: If you look at the WikiLeaks lists of those who were monitored by the NSA in Germany -- from former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine to today's Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks -- it would almost be insulting if you had not been spied on.

Altmaier: This kind of vanity is foreign to me. The WikiLeaks documents allow for a lot of speculation, but they prove little. It names, for example, the landline number of the Chancellery minister. But my landline number in the office is not a state secret. It is included in every letter that I sign.

SPIEGEL: But it's not just telephone numbers that were published. There were also transcripts of conversations held by, for example, Angela Merkel.

Altmaier: We should discuss questions about the authenticity of such documents where they belong, in the parliamentary investigative committee looking into the NSA.

SPIEGEL: Do you have doubts that the transcripts are real?

Altmaier: I do not doubt that a few of the telephone numbers are correct. What we don't know, though, is the extent to which the conversations conducted from those lines were actually eavesdropped on. So far, we have no evidence that any telephone conversation that took place within the federal government's communications network was in fact recorded.

SPIEGEL: When SPIEGEL presented documents in October 2013 suggesting that Merkel's mobile phone had been tapped for years, the government played down the issue. Now WikiLeaks has even published transcripts of the chancellor's conversations and you are still acting as if nothing happened.

Altmaier: The chancellor already made her position clear at the time. "In Germany, it is German law which applies." And: "Spying between friends, that's just not done." That continues to apply. Besides, there are more astute ways for obtaining needed information, in private conversation, for example.

SPIEGEL: We now know that the NSA not only spied on German and European targets, but that the BND even helped it do so. The Americans delivered search terms -- so-called selectors -- which the BND then fed into its monitoring systems. Do you know who, exactly, was spied on with the help of the Germans?

Altmaier: Of course the Chancellery has known since April what is in these selector lists. That is the reason I informed members of the NSA investigative committee in parliament and the leaders of the parliamentary groups of the parties represented in the Bundestag early on about these lists. But a distinction must be made between this and the question as to whether the selectors included in the lists should be released. It would badly damage our security interests because we only receive sensitive information from other intelligence services when we can guarantee absolute trust. The same holds true, incidentally, for the BND. Anything else would violate the principles of cooperation between intelligence agencies.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it more the case that the NSA is violating all the principles of the rule of law?

Altmaier: Thus far, it is clear that, among the selectors, there were also some that violate German and European interests. That is why what both services were doing was not OK. But that doesn't necessarily mean it was an unlawful act. Kurt Graulich, a former justice with the Federal Administrative Court, is currently addressing this issue as an ombudsman for the NSA investigative committee in parliament.

SPIEGEL: Irrespective of the question of what laws may have been violated, we are also talking about a political affront here. How much longer is the German government going to allow itself to be led around by its nose?

Altmaier: Slow down. German law applies in Germany, without limits. If someone is caught spying for a foreign intelligence agency and, in doing so, violates the law, then it is a matter for the German courts, as illustrated by the current case involving a former BND employee. If a spy enjoys diplomatic immunity, then that person will have to leave our country. At the same time, there are cases in which the problem lies not in a violation of the law, but rather a breach of our interests. That's the issue with the selector lists.

SPIEGEL: You refer to the work of the so-called ombudsman Graulich, who is supposed to address the open questions. The political opposition considers the entire process to be misguided and has called for the selector lists to be handed over to the parliamentary investigative committee

Altmaier: It's not that simple. There are rules between secret services that we have to respect. Because of the agreement with the Americans and the applicable confidentiality agreements, the selector lists cannot be released without their permission. We will respect the agreements. The situation might be different if it were clear that we were dealing with prosecutable actions.

SPIEGEL: On Wednesday, the German news website Zeit Online reported that the alleged American reservations were an invention. According to the report, the US side left the decision on whether the parliamentary investigative committee could view the selector lists up to the German government. What is your response?

Altmaier: We could have spared ourselves a difficult debate if there had in fact been agreement from the US about passing them on.

SPIEGEL: With Mr. Graulich, the government is basically deciding itself who should control the lists. It's almost akin to Sepp Blatter being allowed to decide who investigates FIFA.

Altmaier: No, that's not true. It was the parliamentary investigative committee that proposed Graulich. The opposition could have proposed any other ombudsman, perhaps with the exception of former Stasi chief Erich Mielke if he were still alive. But the government would have been open to any appropriate proposal. But there were none.

SPIEGEL: Even when reports on the selector lists first began emerging, you were uncharacteristically aggressive, accusing the BND of "technical and organizational deficiencies." Was your criticism aimed at BND chief Gerhard Schindler?

Altmaier: If you want to write a story in which Altmaier does a number on the BND, then you're going down the wrong track. I have always protected the intelligence agencies as director of intelligence and minister of the Chancellery. They do good work. But when there are incidents that are not acceptable, we have to put a stop to them. Because in a democracy, the government's primacy must also apply when it comes to the intelligence agencies' work. The government must always be knowledgeable about what the services are doing and the services are only permitted to do those things outlined by their mission.

SPIEGEL: Is it possible that there will be consequences in terms of personnel?

Altmaier: Do you have to throw out every person who has made a mistake? I'm more concerned about structural deficiencies. Other consequences will only be decided after those are addressed. If BND chief Gerhard Schindler says he did not know of any improper selectors, then I believe him.

SPIEGEL: But he should have known!

Altmaier: Selectors have been entered since 2002. In the time since then, there have been several BND heads and several chiefs of staff, from Hanning to Schindler and from Steinmeier to Altmaier. Should all of them have said, before selectors are entered, I want to see each individual search term? In the end, there were very, very many of them.

SPIEGEL: Did the BND lead a life of its own?

Altmaier: My impression is that the BND always tried to adhere to German law and to live up to the mission assigned to it by policymakers. What happened here was still not okay. Whether that is because of the BND leading a life of its own or because of simple clumsiness -- that is what we now have to clarify.

SPIEGEL: Should parliamentary controls be intensified?

Altmaier: I am a supporter of parliamentary control. I myself once chaired the Parliamentary Control Panel (the oversight body in parliament responsible for monitoring the intelligence agencies). But there is a problem: All of these panels were established to make possible parliamentary debate over confidential information. But recently, it has become apparent that this confidentiality has repeatedly been violated. That discredits the entire practice. Still, it doesn't help when the government and parliament blame each other for the leaks. We have to improve together.

SPIEGEL: The events of recent months have made it seem as though the government places a greater value on finding those who might be revealing secrets  than in clearing up the NSA scandal.

Altmaier: That impression is false. Dozens of people at the BND and in the government are working to clarify what happened. The investigative committee alone has received hundreds of thousands of pages. A significant portion of my work has to do with grappling with the consequences.

SPIEGEL: Even the Americans are amazed at how tame the Germans are. SPIEGEL recently quoted a BND document which describes the US government's amazement with how calm the German reaction was to news of Merkel's mobile phone being monitored.

Altmaier: Now I have to address the basics. We don't have a level playing field here. You are referring to papers that were potentially published in violation of regulations. I would make myself culpable if I were even to confirm or deny the existence of such papers. Citizens and journalists can follow the activities of agencies and of the government to a much greater extent today that was the case earlier. But the activities of the intelligence agencies really don't lend themselves to be considered in the public marketplace in all their detail.

SPIEGEL: Last October, you sent a letter to the NSA parliamentary investigative committee threatening to place charges against members if documents intended for the committee find their way into the public.

Altmaier: There hasn't yet been a case where we in the Chancellery have elected to file charges. Freedom of the press is a valuable good. But that doesn't mean that the person who passes along the information is obeying the law. Secrets must remain secret.

SPIEGEL: Is that also true when the secret is about a violation of the law? It is the task of journalism to uncover such things.

Altmaier: The public has a right to learn about mistakes and legal violations. That is why we inform the Bundestag in such cases. I can promise you that, wherever a violation of the law is determined -- whether it is in the current debate over the selectors or somewhere else -- the public will learn about it. But that doesn't mean that every document about the intelligence agencies can be published.

SPIEGEL: Given that approach, how do you view the scandal pertaining to Netzpolitik.org, the blog that published a portion of the German domestic intelligence agency's budgetary planning?

Altmaier: The document was classified. It isn't okay to post secret documents on the Internet, at least if there isn't a suspicion that it is about some illegal activity. Fortunately, the accusation of treason  is off the table and I welcome the fact that the related investigation has been brought to an end.

SPIEGEL: The public only has a right to know about secret government activities when those activities are illegal?

Altmaier: If a parliamentarian believes that the government has incorrectly classified a piece of information, he can ask for clarification at any time from the Federal Court of Justice or the Federal Constitutional Court.

SPIEGEL: How strained are German-American relations following WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and the revelations about close cooperation between the NSA and BND?

Altmaier: The relationship is good nevertheless. Still, I am prepared at any time to address things that I am convinced aren't going well. We also protect ourselves from friends when it is necessary.

SPIEGEL: The German government claimed several times that it was negotiating a so-called "No-Spy Agreement" with the US, which would establish limits for intelligence agencies. But it has since become clear that Washington was never seriously considering such a pact. Were you trying to deceive the public?

Altmaier: The government said back in spring of last year that a No-Spy Agreement wouldn't be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. Nothing pertaining to that statement has changed. That isn't new.

SPIEGEL: What about the fact that the Americans made clear that they had no interest in such a pact way back in the 2013, during the German general election campaign? Yet the German government continued to act as though a deal were close.

Altmaier: After one-and-a-half years of thoroughly studying the files, what I can say is that the German government in the summer and fall of 2013 could assume that a deal was reachable. The fact that the negotiations did not lead to a deal only became apparent later.

SPIEGEL: In speaking with your US partners, have you inquired about whether the NSA or CIA performed targeted surveillance of journalists  in Germany?

Altmaier: If I had concrete evidence of such surveillance, I would quickly draw the necessary consequences. Look, I understand the problem. More than two years after the first revelations from Edward Snowden, people want to finally know what exactly happened and whether laws were broken. But particularly in the area of intelligence services, clarifying what exactly happened is difficult by its very nature. Even if a surveillance transcript turns up somewhere, one often doesn't know if the telephone was bugged directly, if the antennas on an embassy in Berlin picked up the conversation or whether it was collected by a telecommunications satellite over Africa. The legal evaluation is different in each case. That is why we are currently unable to answer many questions, particularly given that the Americans apparently have no interest in clearing up these things.

SPIEGEL: Have your personal communications habits changed since the Snowden revelations?

Altmaier: Not significantly. Within the government, we have secure lines. I am a politician. Communication is my job. My mobile phone number isn't secret, you know it too, after all. When the NSA monitors a satellite from Arizona, it could be that I'm in the data they collect. But I'm not sure if a mid-level bureaucrat in Arizona will really learn much from the discussions I hold with journalists such as yourselves. But if monitoring my discussions by some agency leads to good thoughts being spread around, then I don't have a problem with it.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Altmaier, we thank you for this interview.

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