Chancellery finds it hard to be transparent about intelligence | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.07.2013
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Chancellery finds it hard to be transparent about intelligence

In Germany, three agencies are responsible for three areas of intelligence. The chancellery is supposed to inform parliament about what they're doing - but the parliamentarians often feel out of the loop.

The information provided by Edward Snowden has revealed the extent of spying by American and British intelligence agencies in Germany - according to his revelations, the US National Security Agency (NSA) was reported to have tapped millions of electronic communications.

Since the news emerged, the German government has given the impression of not having the slightest idea that the practice had been going on for years - a claim that many have found hard to swallow. According to polls, the majority of Germans doubt Chancellor Angela Merkel's protestations that she knew nothing.

But if she knew nothing, who did? Chancellery Minister Ronald Pofalla is the government's intelligence agency commissioner. According to the chancellery's website, he coordinates the cooperation between Germany's three intelligence agencies, as well as between the agencies and other authorities.

The website also reveals that the head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) is directly answerable to Pofalla. The domestic intelligence agency (BfV) comes under the authority of the interior ministry, while military intelligence (MAD) comes under the defense ministry.

How much must parliament know?

Merkel's man Pofalla is especially in demand because of his role as coordinator of the three agencies. His legal duties include informing the parliamentary standing committee responsible for security agencies about their activities.

Chancellery Minister Ronald Pofalla. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Ronald Pofalla is the man who's supposed to know

The committee is made up of 11 members from all five political parties represented in German parliament, and they've been asking a lot of questions ever since the news broke about the United States' PRISM and the spying programs run by other Western agencies.

The committee was supposed to have its next meeting during the second half of August, but neither the government nor the committee wanted to wait that long - a special session is taking place on Thursday (25.07.2013). Pofalla will have to explain to what degree the BND cooperated with the NSA; according to media reports, the cooperation was intensive and violated German data protection laws.

Right-wing terror a topic

The committee had not been happy with the government's information policy even before the spaying scandal broke. It's also been critical of its handling of information on the National Socialist Underground (NSU), the extremist right-wing cell believed to be responsible for the murder of 10 people.

The NSU scandal and the failures of the intelligence agencies which it has revealed have been the subject of a special parliamentary investigative committee for the last eighteen months, but members of the standing committee on security affairs have been accusing the government of not being prepared to provide information to that committee either - especially regarding provision of access to the records of specific cases.

According to the law that governs the standing committee, the government may refuse to hand over documents "on compelling grounds concerning access to classified information or the protection of privacy rights of third parties."

Hans-Christian Ströbele. (Photo: Tim Brakemeier/dpa)

Greens like Hans-Christian Ströbele are pushing for release of more information

Critics, like Hans-Christian Ströbele, who sits on the committee for the Greens, say this is a very flexible formulation. Even Hartfrid Wolff of the liberal Free Democratic Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, has submitted a legislative proposal some time ago that would require parliament to appoint an permanent intelligence agency specialist.

Right to silence

The standing committee currently only has the right to appoint an expert to "carry out specific investigations." But whether a permanent expert would learn any more than the current ad hoc experts is questionable, as the government will always be able to invoke its right to say nothing.

The law says it may exercise that right "if a core area of executive responsibility is concerned." That phrase seems tailored to ensure that the committee and the public will not get the information they want about British and US spying in Germany.

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