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Germany

The BND affair: "No better partner than the USA"

The federal government isn't saying much about a probe into a new scandal involving Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency. Now, the federal prosecutor’s office is planning to cooperate with the German NSA inquiry.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert did not have much new information to add to a statement from the chancellor's office that was released to the press on Thursday. Responding to questions, he was also limited in what he could say because of security restrictions. Questions need to be addressed to the parliamentary supervisory body and committee appointed to investigate the NSA affair, he said. Then, Seibert said something that probably describes the overlying structures very well: When it comes to security and fighting terrorism, you won't find a "better partner than the USA."

Even if the USA, working with the BND and the NSA, is monitoring European companies and politicians as is currently the case? The head of the Left party group, Gregor Gysi, has demanded an end to this cooperation. Germany has to "stop being so cowardly in the face of the US administration," he said, adding that this is about other goals than fighting terrorism. Rather, the goals are of a "political and economic" nature. Konstantin von Notz, a Green party member of the NSA committee, went as far as to say that it endangers the rule of law.

Is the BND acting too independently?

NSA-Untersuchungsausschus

The German parliamentary inquiry into BND-NSA cooperation has trouble getting accurate information

It appears that parliament and the federal government "were misled by the BND about the extent and the goals of its cooperation with the NSA," said Martina Renner, a Left party member of the NSA inquiry. The Social Democrats are also critical. The BND appears to be acting unilaterally, said Yasmin Fahimi, general secretary of the SPD. "That's something we can't accept," she said, adding that Chancellor Angela Merkel's office seems to have completely lost control over the BND.

When asked whether the chancellery was fully informed about the BND's activities, Seibert said that there were "technical and organizational deficits" at the BND that must immediately be remedied. He had no comment on the future of the BND's President Gerhard Schindler.

What is known, is that as early as 2008, the BND became aware of several search requests from the Americans that were considered to be problematic. The chancellor's office was first informed about this in March. The BND is forbidden from turning information about German citizens that it discovers in the course of its foreign intelligence work over to its partners.

In March, Harald Fechner, a former BND department head in charge of technical information, told the NSA inquiry that the BND had made "mistakes" but that these were rare and were not the result of any political agenda.

Common investigation planned

USA Fahne Brandenburger Tor Berlin

Promises have now been made to make more documents available

Since the affair began in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations, the federal prosecutor has had an ongoing inspection process with relation to cooperation of foreign intelligence services. The office now intends to "incorporate the results of the investigation committee within the framework of this inspection process," said a spokeswoman from the federal prosecutor's office. She denied that any such investigation was currently underway.

The chairman of the NSA committee, Patrick Sensburg of the Christian Democrats (CDU), promised to grant the federal prosecutor access to the files and meeting protocols. The committee also plans to hear testimony from witnesses familiar with the cooperation. But history has shown that the cooperation between the BND and the committee is not easy. Some files have been redacted to the point where they're no longer legible, others have been classified, or simply not delivered. The investigation into the latest revelations is also not likely to be any easier.

The German government's former human rights commissioner, Markus Löning (FDP) has taken a new approach. Together with a Berlin-based think tank called the "Stiftung Neue Verantwortung" (SNV), or New Responsibility Foundation, he recently presented a reform agenda for intelligence services. His premise is that the parliamentary and judicial supervision of the intelligence services is outdated and has to be brought in line with modern standards. In the past 15 years, the digitalization of communication has made better supervision possible, but the state has not availed itself of these opportunities to the extent that it could, he said.

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