The NSA has accused its German counterpart of targeting the US with acts of espionage. German politicians and experts agree that such claims are misguided, citing first-hand experience and legal strictures.
During congressional hearings on espionage targeting US allies, the head of US intelligence, James Clapper, went on the offensive by claiming the US isn't the only country involved in such activity. Clapper is convinced that American allies also spy on top US politicians and North American intelligence agencies.
According to a report in the "Washington Post," US intelligence officials have information that the German Intelligence Services (BND) is spying in America. A list of telephone numbers was circulating which suggested that the BND had followed the activities of around 300 US citizens in 2008.
Following his remarks, the BND quickly issued a denial. "The German Embassy in Washington does not conduct any kind of telecommunications monitoring," said BND head Gerhard Schindler in an interview with the German weekly "Die Zeit."
Intelligence agency expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom agrees, telling Deutsche Welle that Washington's claims were "off the mark."
"The BND gets its orders from the Chancellery. There's political oversight for the assignments, and the key tasks are defined," he said, adding that collecting intelligence on the US government does not belong to those key tasks.
Instead, Schmidt-Eenboom says the BND focuses on combating international terrorism. "That means observing crisis regions - Syria, at the moment. And it means safeguarding German military operations, where Afghanistan is key. And it's also the fight against organized crime," Schmidt-Eenboom explained.
While the BND does analyze the policies of Germany's allies, Schmidt-Eenboom believes the material in such cases stems from diplomatic sources as well as information from partner agencies. "It's off the mark to suggest that the BND would begin targeting Germany's European or trans-Atlantic allies," the intelligence expert said.
State approval required
Christian Ströbele, a member of parliament for the Green party, takes a similar view. Ströbele is a member of the parliamentary committee that oversees German intelligence activities. He says Alexander's claims are accurate in the sense that the BND conducts espionage, research and data collection in foreign countries. However, Ströbele stressed, those activities are part of its legal charter, and each instance of surveillance in other parts of the world must be approved by his committee.
Ströbele regards it as nearly inconceivable that parliament would approve espionage targeting the US, citing what he calls the central difference between the NSA and the BND - beyond the NSA's greater size and capacities: "The BND has always maintained the position - or at least assured us - that it does not spy on our friends."
An eye to negotiations
In other parts of the world, it's a matter of course that German intelligence is active, says Schmidt-Eenboom. "Germany obviously has - let's take the case of Afghanistan - interest in finding out what is actually going on in Karzai's government. We have interests around the world in specific sectors," the intelligence researcher said.
However, parliamentarian Christian Ströbele notes that Germany would very much be interested in certain types of intelligence on the United States. "Even though Germany treats the US as an ally, the states have divergent interests including on negotiations about trade treaties like the SWIFT agreement. In cases like that, it's always good to know what the other side is planning," Ströbele explained, but was careful to reiterate his belief that the BND does not actively collect such information.