Photo Gallery: Targeting Germany

Foto: Boris Roessler/ dpa

Ally and Target US Intelligence Watches Germany Closely

German intelligence services cooperate closely with the NSA, but the country is also a target of US surveillance, as a document seen by SPIEGEL makes clear. The spy software XKeyscore is operated from a facility in Hesse, with some of the results landing on President Obama's desk.
Von Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach und Holger Stark

The US military compound in Griesheim, near Frankfurt, is secured with a tall wire fence topped with barbed wire. The buildings are relatively modest and surrounded by large areas of green space, which has long led local residents to suspect that many of those working at the facility spend much of their time underground -- and that they are engaged in espionage.

The so-called "Dagger Complex" is one of the best protected sites in the German state of Hesse. Griesheim resident Daniel Bangert recently discovered what could happen to those who show a little too much interest in sites like Dagger. In early July, Bangert -- inspired by the leaks of whistleblower Edward Snowden -- used his Facebook account to post an invitation to a "stroll" to the Dagger Complex, for the purpose of "joint research into the threatened habitat of NSA spies." But before he could embark on his outing into the world of espionage, Bangert found himself dealing with the police.

Lawmakers in the German parliament, the Bundestag, have also expressed an interest in the group of buildings near Darmstadt, south of Frankfurt. The campus houses one of the most important European branches of the National Security Agency (NSA), the American intelligence agency that has come under fire worldwide as a result of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

According to internal NSA information, which SPIEGEL has seen, the agency's European Cryptologic Center (ECC) is headquartered in Griesheim. A 2011 NSA report indicates that the ECC is responsible for the "largest analysis and productivity in Europe." According to the report, results from the secret installation find their way into the President's Daily Brief, the daily intelligence report given to US President Barack Obama, an average of twice a week.

Germany is a special place for the NSA, in many respects. Few other countries are the source of as much data for US intelligence agencies, much of which comes from the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency. At the same time Germany itself, despite all friendly assurances to the contrary, is also a target of the surveillance. According to a "secret" summary among the documents obtained by Snowden, which SPIEGEL was able to view, Germany is one of the targets of US espionage activity.

Of Interest

In the April 2013 summary, the NSA defines its "intelligence priorities" on a scale ranging from "1" (highest interest) to "5" (lowest interest). Not surprisingly, the top targets include China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Germany ranks somewhere in the middle on this priority list, together with France and Japan, but above Italy and Spain. Among the issues listed as being of interest are German foreign policy and questions of economic stability as well as threats to the financial system, both given a priority rating of "3." Other surveillance assignments include subjects like arms exports, new technologies, advanced conventional weapons and international trade, all with a priority of "4." The US spies apparently feel that counter-espionage and the risk of cyber attacks on US infrastructure coming from Germany are not particularly threatening (priority level "5"). The document lists a total of nine areas to be covered by surveillance in Germany.

According to the list of spying priorities, the European Union is also one of the targets of American surveillance, specifically in six individual areas. The areas assigned a priority level of "3" are EU foreign policy goals, "international trade" and "economic stability." Lower-priority areas are new technologies, energy security and food security issues.

Countries like Cambodia, Laos and Nepal are apparently more or less irrelevant from a US intelligence perspective, as are most European countries, like Finland, Denmark, Croatia and the Czech Republic.

The report reflects the ambivalent relationship the United States has with many countries. On the one hand, intelligence agencies cooperate with one another and exchange information. On the other hand, Washington spies on many countries, at least to some extent. Only the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand -- referred to as the "five eyes," together with the United States -- are seen as true friends, largely off-limits in terms of espionage, and with which there is an open exchange of information.

The NSA classifies about 30 other countries as "3rd parties," with whom it cooperates, though with reservations. Germany is one of them. "We can, and often do, target the signals of most 3rd party foreign partners," the secret NSA document reads.

Still Waiting for Answers

The priorities list, in which Germany is shown as a target, is a setback for the Americans' efforts at controlling the damage caused by the leaking of information about various espionage programs and surveillance operations. Only last week, the BND insisted that it had "no indications" that the NSA "collects personal data on German citizens in Germany."

"The monitoring of friends -- this is unacceptable," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said after SPIEGEL published the story in July describing how the NSA infiltrates institutions of the European Union.  "We're no longer in the Cold War."

More than six weeks after the scandal began, the German government is still waiting for answers on what exactly the NSA is doing in -- and against -- Germany. In particular, Berlin has yet to be fully informed about what kinds of data the NSA gathers, directly or indirectly, in addition to the millions of pieces of metadata the BND admits to collecting at its surveillance stations, such as the one in Bad Aibling near Munich, and forwarding to the Americans.

Various NSA documents from years past, which SPIEGEL was able to examine, reveal the intensity of the American surveillance of international data communications from their facilities in Germany. In addition to the station in Bad Aibling, the NSA installation in Griesheim plays an important role, as evidenced by the NSA personnel's description of it as a "success story" in the field of technical surveillance. According to the document, the number of surveillance operations with specific targets increased from 5 to 26 from 2007 to 2011 alone, with the 240 employees working at the ECC (total from 2011) focusing on various priorities, including Africa, Europe, the Middle East and counterterrorism operations.

The site in Hesse is also of interest for another reason: The controversial XKeyscore software appears to be in use there, as indicated by a 2012 internal NSA progress report. The report, with the odd title "Tales from the Land of Brothers Grimm" describes how successful the analysts have been in using the program. It is also enlightening because it shows that many NSA employees had a great deal of respect for XKeyscore. One analyst is quoted as saying that he always felt that he had one foot in prison when he was using the program, but that he began feeling more confident after going through training.

Toilet Seats and Seaweed

Prior to XKeyscore, the work of the NSA analysts was comparable with "Forrest Gump on his shrimping boat off the coast of Alabama," reads the report from Griesheim. From the ocean of data, the report reads, the analysts pulled in "a boot, a toilet seat, seaweed, and, there they are … three shrimp!" (ellipse in original) To get to these few shrimp, they were forced to use vast resources, including documents or metadata that expand knowledge about the targets. "We deal with tons of toilet seats, the spam and other junk," the report reads. But after the introduction of XKeyscore, the work, the report indicates, became much more efficient, because the tools made it possible to make precise casts, bringing in more shrimp and less by-catch.

With XKeyscore, his staff discovered "new traffic and documents," raves a unit manager in the Africa department. Among the catch, the unit manager notes according to the document, was material from the Tunisian Interior Ministry that no other surveillance system had managed to capture.

The documents make clear that the NSA wanted to distribute the new features offered by the system, which the BND had also been using on a small scale since 2007, as widely as possible using an internal modernization program. To do so, it used a training program, a sort of circuit training for various stations, conceived by the British intelligence agency GCHQ. When 68 people attended one of these programs in Griesheim in March 2012, the participants said that spending 20 minutes at each of the different stations was like "speed dating."

To create additional motivation, the NSA incorporated various features from computer games into the program. For instance, analysts who were especially good at using XKeyscore could acquire "skilz" points and "unlock achievements." The training units in Hesse were apparently successful. ECC analysts had achieved the "highest average of skilz points" compared with all other NSA departments participating in the training program.

The Americans are hardly likely to admit to the German government what exactly the group in Griesheim is doing and whether the Americans there also have targets in Germany under surveillance. Former NSA Director Michael Hayden told SPIEGEL that "the damage for the German-American relationship is huge." After September 11, he says, he focused on developing a strong working relationship with the BND. "I tried to avoid acting as an occupier. We extended our cooperation." This success, he adds, was now in jeopardy.

'We Steal Secrets'

However Hayden, a four-star general who is now retired, does not deny that the NSA is involved in espionage. "We steal secrets. We're number one in it," he says." But, he adds, this is not malicious or industrial espionage. "We steal stuff to make you safe, not to make you rich."

Sept. 11, 2001, says former NSA employee Thomas Drake, assumed a central role in America's relationship with Germany. Drake, who speaks German, flew reconnaissance aircraft over German territory for years, listening in on the Eastern bloc. He left the agency in 2008 and, like Snowden, became a whistleblower. "Sept. 11 was the trigger that Germany became a target of high priority." The Americans, he adds, were interested in finding out who in Germany sympathized with Islamists.

Drake's claim is supported by a presentation from the Griesheim NSA installation. It describes the framework for analysis for European targets, noting that "most" terrorists travel through Europe.

Another NSA document also provides information on which groups the Americans are interested in. According to the document, there are active groups associated with the Anonymous movement in Germany that are seen as legitimate targets for the NSA -- as long as they are not US citizens. In addition, the Americans mine data from Germany for information about possible weapons deals.

XKeyscore is an outstanding tool for this, because it allows for non-specific search procedures. With the help of the software, an analyst can be made aware of previously unknown Internet users, because they suddenly become interested in certain topics or exhibit a certain type of behavior.

It will be interesting to see whether the American government acts on the promise of transparency that Obama made on Friday in response to growing public pressure. "We can and must be more transparent," said the president, noting that he had instructed US intelligence agencies to release significantly more information about the surveillance programs under fire.

'Whatever We Like'

But whether that includes the NSA's work in Griesheim is just as unlikely as an explanation of the priority list for espionage targets. As is always true in these cases, the fine print is what matters. Some accusations, such as that EU embassies were bugged, could not be explained without a loss of face, especially since Obama, after his visit to Berlin, said that if he wanted to know what Merkel was thinking he would call her, and that he didn't need the NSA for that.

Chancellery chief Ronald Pofalla and Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich will probably have taken note, with some satisfaction, of one particular sentence uttered by the American president: That the United States does not spy on the people of other countries. The German government had urged Washington to make such a statement for weeks. Of course, its pleasure will no doubt be muted by the fact that Germany and the EU are listed among the targets of American surveillance.

German intelligence agencies hope to see the revelations come to an end soon. They want to return to everyday life, which provides for close cooperation with the Americans. This is a sentiment they share with most NSA employees, to whom Snowden is anathema, because they savor the power of tools like XKeyscore. After all, everyone likes "a new toy," an NSA employee raves in one of the reports. XKeyscore, the report continues, is perhaps "a seven-headed dragon. Big and scary? Sure. Strong and powerful? Oh yeah."

According to the report, it is up to NSA employees to tame it, and then "to do with whatever we like."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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