Over two years after the NSA affair, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency is leaving his post. Investigative journalist Hans Leyendecker tells DW it’s because he didn’t know whom his staff were spying on.
DW: More than two and a half years ago, the German people - who are very sensitive when it comes to matters of privacy protection - were shocked to learn about the NSA affair. Now, Gerhard Schindler, the head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, BND, is being replaced. Why is that only happening now?
Leyendecker: Because, at the time, the assumption was that he didn't know what certain departments were doing. But now, looking back, it's become clear that this has often been the case at the BND. You could say that the BND, which is turning 60 this year, has always tended to have a life of its own, no matter who was president. Now this president is suffering from this tendency to act independently. In this case, it's about the fact that selectors were being used [search terms provided by the NSA to conduct surveillance, including on allies - Ed.] and that Schindler had no knowledge about what these selectors were.
You talk about the BND having a life of its own. The German foreign intelligence service reports to the chancellery and is monitored by a parliamentary committee. What makes this agency different from other government agencies?
This agency is different because it employs spies. And some of these people have always acted on their own accord, even, at times, acting against the direct commands of their superiors. There are many people there who are doing a good job, but it's in the very nature of a foreign intelligence agency to employ a certain type of person. And that's why really all of the presidents have had difficulties - because these people are the way they are.
Within the intelligence community, the passing of information from the BND to the NSA was not without controversy. Who was critical of this seemingly unquestioning passing on of information? Was it the middle hierarchy which couldn't get their way with management?
There are conflicts on all levels. It's hard to get five intelligence agencies at one table and then find a common line. There are different interests, there are also portfolio interests, at one time there were 13 departments that were then reformed into 12 departments. The one department that was then no longer a department rebelled. These kinds of tensions are nothing new of course, but they are much more excessive in an intelligence agency.
Angela Merkel's now famous quote that "spying among friends is unacceptable" was, at the time, directed at the Americans. But for years, the BND had been one of Washington's willing assistants. Why wasn't the chancellery able to better control the BND?
The chancellery had been tipped off that things were amiss, but it never followed up. That is surely a big problem. There is a coordinator for the intelligence service, Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, and he was given information, but then there was no follow through. And, that quote also turned out to be wrong, because the BND was also spying on friends in numerous cases, whether it was Paris, Rome, or other places.
Have Germans changed the way they communicate in the wake of the NSA affair in 2013? Would you say they no longer discuss sensitive topics on the phone?
No. That's always more of a question of days, where people might be scared that someone is listening to them, but I don't think that anything has really changed. There are a few phones, particularly in the parliamentary area, that are not so easy to tap. But at the same time, there are hackers who show time and again that they can get into any system. And I think that, on a normal level, people still communicate the way they always did.
What can and should the new leadership at the BND do differently?
The hope will surely be that we won't again have such a case of agents acting independently. And the second thing will be finding new ways to be better in the area of cyber security. The third thing will be a successful move from Pullach to Berlin. That's a really complicated thing at the BND. We're talking about a total of 6,500 staff members. Around 1,000 will stay in Pullach, the others will then mainly be at the agency's office in Berlin. The new head of the BND will have a difficult task in maintaining a sense of unity.
Hans Leyendecker, 66, is one of Germany's most renowned investigative journalists. He has uncovered numerous political scandals dating back to the 1980s. He works for the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Interview: Volker Wagener