BND spying affair divides German coalition

17233452751_5f50ee3b52_z.jpg [Initiative D21/Flickr]

Angela Merkel defended cooperation between Germany’s intelligence service, the BND, and its US counterpart, the NSA, amid fresh accusations of illegal spying operations. EURACTIV Germany reports.

After sharp criticism from Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s ruling coalition parties are facing off in the spy debate.

Both Michael Grosse-Brömer, the first secretary of the centre-right in the Bundestag, and Gerda Hasselfeldt, the chairwoman of the conservative CSU group, said on Tuesday (5 May) that criticism from the SPD against the Chancellery, and Chancellor Merkel, seems to be clearing itself up amid nervousness over weak poll results.

Still, neither Grosse-Brömer nor Hasselfeldt wished to issue a clear position on the statement from SPD leader Gabriel.

On Monday (4 May) the Vice Chancellor said Merkel assured him twice that there were no indications of business espionage “beyond the known case of EADS”. His choice of words was seen as an attempt to make Merkel the target in the debate.

Asked about a breach of confidentiality, Hasselfeldt only commented, “That is a matter the two must sort out between themselves.”

Hasselfeldt was quick to criticise the CSU and CDU’s coalition partner, the SPD. Nervous behaviour over weak polling results is generally a bad rule to go by, she said.

“I do not believe such behaviour can strengthen the citizens’ trust in the SPD,” the CSU politician said,

>>Read: BND scandal: Bundestag committee issues ultimatum

Patrick Sensburg, the chairman of the NSA investigation commission in the Bundestag, called for more objectivity from the SPD. Sensburg said he is sometimes amazed at “how coalition partners interact with each other”, according to a report from Spiegel Online on Tuesday.

The SPD seems to “have given up the usual professional form of restraint”, Sensburg commented.

The centre-right’s internal affairs spokesman Stephan Mayer (CSU), told right-wing tabloid Bild that Vice Chancellor Gabriel should “hold back in his unfair attacks on the BND’s leaders and the Chancellor”.

Gabriel is calling for the disclosure of search terms that the BND allegedly spied on for the NSA, while combing through communications data.

This is an “intelligence service scandal that is capable of triggering a very severe shock”, the SPD politician said. It affects the credibility of the constitutional state and relations to the United States, he emphasised.

But Gabriel said he does not expect the BND to have practiced large-scale spying on European businesses for the NSA.

Merkel admits to BND cooperation with the NSA

Speaking on Monday (4 May), Merkel defended the BND’s cooperation with the United States’ intelligence service, the NSA.

“The German government will make every effort to guarantee the intelligence services can carry out their duties. This ability to carry out duties in the face of international terrorism threats is done in cooperation with other intelligence agencies,” she said in Berlin, “and that includes first and foremost the NSA.”

Merkel agreed to provide an explanation in the parliamentary committee regarding the allegations against the BND over suspected illegal cooperation with the NSA. She did not, however, indicate whether the government would also submit so-called selector lists specifying spying targets.

Merkel said her earlier statement that friends should not spy on friends remains an important issue. “I believe the answer should be that that should not happen,” she said.

The BND is being accused of aiding the NSA in spying on European businesses and EU institutions.

German intelligence directors indignant over accusations

The directors of Germany’s intelligence services were appalled at the allegations against the BND.

Apparently, certain circles in the media and politics are attempting to weaken the intelligence services, the President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution Hans-Georg Maaßen said.

“I want to reject the charge of treason with the utmost clarity and utmost decisiveness,” BND President Gerhard Schindler said on Monday at a security conference in Berlin. “This accusation is quite simply absurd.”

Responding to criticism of overly intensive cooperation with the NSA, Schindler said that the BND works for German interests and for no one else. “This is another reason why the BND is not simply a compliant tool for the United States.”

The intelligence service’s performance is higher than it has been in a long time, which can also be seen in the fight against Islamist extremism, Schindler pointed out. But its performance is dependent on cooperation with other intelligence services.

“Without international cooperation, the BND would not be able to fulfill its task,” Schindler said. But “ (the) media’s piecemeal dissection of an intelligence service” will damage international cooperation, he pointed out.

Internal affairs minister rejects own misconduct

Internal Affairs Minister Thomas de Maizière again rejected accusations over his own misconduct in the BND affair. He announced he would make a statement before the intelligence services supervisory body on Wednesday (6 May).

On Monday de Maizière said it is good that he will have the opportunity there to dispel the complaints against him.

It does not add up, the centre-right politician explained, that already in 2008 when he was head of the Chancellery he allegedly gave information to the NSA on businesses and governments.

“In 2008, it was not a report on concrete reliable findings about NSA abuses, but about not deepening a certain form of co-operation with the NSA in order to avoid abuses”, he said.

Media reports triggered the avalanche of the scandal, in which the BND allegedly acted as an aid to the NSA by combing through communication data collected from its listening post in Bad Aibling.

The list of spy targets provided by the Americans is also said to have included European companies such as the aviation and defense company Airbus. The aircraft manufacturer has announced plans to file charges against persons unknown over the alleged espionage.

Europeans have reacted angrily to allegations that a US intelligence agency had tapped the servers of online companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about American web giants' reach, and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US were conducting trade talks.

In July 2013, Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into the NSA's programme, known as Prism, after The Guardian and Der Spiegel revealed widescale spying by the agency, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Germans are particularly sensitive about surveillance, given the state's history of spying on its own people during the Cold War. Protests over data privacy and the NSA continue as more and more is revealed about surveillance practices in recent years.

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