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Intel probe

Marcel Fürstenau / asbJanuary 16, 2014

Germany's Parliamentary Control Panel (PKGr) meets to determine who will oversee the country's three intelligence agencies. Left party politician Andre Hahn hopes the panel's influence will grow.

BND Berlin Schriftzug
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

All good things come in threes, as they say. Maybe that's why the German government allows itself three intelligence services. Opinions are divided over whether that's a good thing, but if you were to grade the performance of these agencies in the recent past they would most likely not come out well.

Since the German Intelligence Agency (BND) claims it wasn't aware of the global interception activities of its US-counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country's domestic security agency, somehow missed the string of murders carried out by the far-right terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), they only deserve a "fail." The only German intelligence service that didn't make negative headlines recently is the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD).

Der Bundestagsabgeordnete André Hahn
Hahn will most likely be a member of the PKGrImage: André Hahn/Thomas Kläber

All three agencies are obliged to inform the Parliamentary Control Panel (PKGr) of their actions. This panel has been holding a meeting at least once every three months behind bug-proof walls since 1978.

On Thursday (16.01.2014), the PKGr will assemble once again and the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, will choose the panel's members. Members of parliament from all parties are part of the committee and have, by law, the right to be "sufficiently informed about the general activities and proceedings that are of particular importance." What exactly that entails is defined by the government.

Legal fight for a seat on the panel

One of the PKGr's prospective newcomers is the socialist Left party's Andre Hahn, who applied for a seat on the panel for the first time. It is common practice to vote for all applicants on a cross-party basis, so Hahn can expect votes from other political parties as well.

Hahn was a member of the state parliament in Saxony for 20 years and was the first Left party politician (back then called the Party of Democratic Socialism) to be a member of a German parliamentary intelligence control panel in 1996. But he had to fight for this right in court because the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wanted to block his access.

More to control on a federal level

Hahn told DW that members of parliament have had to fight for their control power for years. As parliamentary controller he received extensive information about intelligence agency activities, including details about people under surveillance and the results of such measures.

While Hahn was only responsible for one intelligence agency in the state of Saxony, as member of the PKGr he will be responsible for three. But that's not the only reason why Hahn expects it to be harder to control the intelligence services on a federal level.

As the only Left party member of the PKGr with the right to see files, he will not be able to discuss the results with anyone in his party. However, it is important to talk to others about "what's happening there [at the PKGr]," he said.

Over the last months it has became obvious how necessary it is to "carefully examine" intelligence services, Hahn said, referring to the NSA scandal, which former intelligence agencies coordinator Ronald Pofalla (of the CDU) declared "over" in the summer.

Portrait Ronald Pofalla
Ronald Pofalla judged the NSA scandal a little too quicklyImage: Getty Images

That turned out to be a little early, as it emerged in fall that even Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone was being tapped by the NSA. Not only that, but the promised No-Spy-Agreement between the US and Germany has fallen through.

State secretary for intelligence agencies

Hahn has many reasons to be skeptical. According to him, the biggest problem is that he can only assess what he is told by the intelligence services. Plus he thinks it should be possible to inform the public about the work of the agencies.

"It shouldn't be kept in a secret room," he said, adding that it is the job of the control panel to prevent mass surveillance activities, such as those carried out by the NSA, in the future.

Hahn also doesn't agree with the government's latest decision to appoint a state secretary in the chancellery who will solely be responsible for the intelligence agencies. In the past, this task was assigned to the head of the chancellery.

What might seem like a reinforcement of control over intelligence services will actually lead to a devaluation of control, Hahn said. After all, the head of the chancellery acts as a member of parliament, and can thus regularly attend governmental meetings. A state secretary is not allowed to do that and has therefore less influence. Should anything go wrong in the coordination of intelligence services in the future, then the government can now quickly find a "pawn to sacrifice," Hahn said.