BERLIN — The uproar shaking the halls of power here could aptly be titled, “NSA Scandal II: The Sequel.” But in this latest spy drama, the nefarious Americans have a co-conspirator: the recalcitrant German intelligence service.
Outrage in Germany over American snooping erupted in 2013, after data released by whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed U.S. surveillance of friendly European targets up to and including Chancellor Angela Merkel. But fresh revelations suggest that the Bundesnachrichtendienst — Berlin’s foreign intelligence arm, also known as the BND — may have separately aided U.S. agents with snooping on hundreds of European companies, regional entities and politicians. The targets, according to a report in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday, included French and European Commission officials.
The new disclosures center on a list of 2,000 suspicious “selectors” — including phone numbers, IP addresses and e-mails — provided by the United States and plugged into German intelligence data systems that the Germans later determined exceeded the operation’s mandate. The German government has privately acknowledged the existence of the list to select lawmakers but has not clarified the targets, according to one of the parliamentarians briefed on the issue but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the briefing was classified.
After the Snowden disclosures, Merkel berated Washington by saying that spying on friends is “a no-go.” The new revelations are now rocking the government to its core. A bevy of German lawmakers is demanding answers to highly uncomfortable questions, some aimed at top figures in Merkel’s cabinet. Next week, they will summon intelligence officials before two parliamentary committees to testify; some are even threatening to call Merkel.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are clamoring for the complete list of targets, information that is likely to prove highly embarrassing to Washington and Berlin. The Süddeutsche Zeitung report, for instance, said the operation targeted unnamed officials in the Élysée Palace, the French Foreign Ministry and European bureaucrats in Brussels.
“It will be extremely embarrassing for Merkel, who prides herself on her close relationship with [French President François] Hollande, if it turns out that the BND helped the NSA spy on French politicians. Obama knows the feeling,” said Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the parliamentary intelligence control panel from the Green Party.
In Germany, fresh outrage is being aimed at the United States, with critics mostly concerned that attempts to snoop on companies such as Airbus could qualify as industrial espionage. But this time, many here appear far more scandalized by the actions of their own intelligence agencies and officials, with words such as “hypocrisy,” “ineptitude” and “coverup” flying at the BND and the chancellery.
The current allegations center on operations at a top-secret Bavarian surveillance base in Bad Aibling, where the Germans and Americans have been engaged in beefed-up intelligence operations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. German and U.S. officials agreed to closer cooperation that involved tapping into sensitive German data, including satellite interceptions and information accessed from the major Internet-cable hubs in Frankfurt.
As part of the deal, U.S. intelligence would provide search terms such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses that would be fed into the computers in Bad Aibling for data matches. However, there were supposed to be restrictions. A 2002 memorandum of agreement between Germany and the United States narrowed the kinds of targets open to the operation, excluding, for instance, German and American nationals and companies.
According to an initial report in newsmagazine Der Spiegel on April 23, the United States presented the Germans with at least 40,000 search terms that were quickly deemed unacceptable. Yet after the Snowden scandal erupted in 2013, an official at the BND conducted a review that revealed about 2,000 other “suspicious” searches that had been processed even though they appeared to be outside the scope of the operation. The list of targets, German lawmakers said, included the defense arm of Airbus Group and the helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter, now also part of Airbus.
Recent reports now suggest that the list included other European officials. And what is shocking to many here is that such lapses were not publicly disclosed when Germany was railing against the United States for snooping on Merkel.
It remains unclear, however, who in the government knew these details and when they knew them. If it does turn out that top German officials knew and withheld the information, the scandal could become one of the biggest of Merkel’s tenure, observers here say. But if top officials were kept in the dark, the BND’s failure to disclose the lapses to the highest level of government, especially given the national debate at the time, would be viewed as a potentially colossal error of judgment.
“What is the extent of this?” said Martina Renner, a lawmaker from the Die Linke party who sits on the parliamentary committee investigating the NSA scandal. “The important thing is who knew about this and who failed politically to prevent this from happening.”
In addition, at least some of the lapses may have been flagged earlier and passed on. As early as 2008, according to the tabloid Bild, officials at the BND notified the chancellery — the civilian overseers of the BND — that the NSA was using the joint operation to pursue its “own interests which go beyond common interests.”
Publicly, German officials have been cagey at best, merely conceding that there were “technical and organizational deficits” within the BND. But they have refused to elaborate or to clarify who knew what and when.
Thomas de Maizière, the top civilian in charge of overseeing the BND in 2008 and currently Merkel’s interior minister, is taking the most fire. After his ministry informed lawmakers two weeks ago that it had no prior knowledge of lapses, he has been accused of being disingenuous or derelict in his duties for not uncovering them in 2008. Bild published his image with a Pinocchio nose and the headline, “Mr. de Maizière, You’re a Blatant Liar!”
In a statement Thursday, de Maizière said the allegations are not true. He could not air the evidence publicly, he said, because it was top secret. But he pledged to offer confidential briefings to members of Parliament.
The U.S. Embassy in Berlin declined to comment.
“We’re not just trying to blame the NSA,” Renner, the Die Linke member, said. “We’re looking at what happened here.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.