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German spies get new mission plan

February 1, 2017

Germany's equivalent of the CIA, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has been given a new set of tasks - three years too late. But whether or not they will have to counter Russian election hacking remains speculation.

Zentrale des Bundesnachrichtendienstes (BND)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

The BND's official new "task profile" (given the acronym APB) will come into force this week, according to anonymous security sources quoted in "Die Welt" newspaper on Wednesday. The directive is supposed to be issued by the government every four years to determine what areas its spies are to concentrate on.

But since the last APB was issued in 2009, it seems that the latest one is three years overdue. And there is much media speculation that the fallout from Edward Snowden's revelations about the cooperation between the US National Security Agency and the BND led to the delay.

Snowden's leaks showed that the BND had spied on European allies on the NSA's behalf, and in 2015, the German government announced that the BND's work would be overhauled - a measure that led to a new "BND law" being passed in parliament in November last year.

Christian Flisek, Social Democrat Bundestag member and part of the parliamentary inquiry into NSA activities in Germany, was in no doubt that this led to the delay. "Through the parliamentary inquiry we uncovered significant wrongdoing, particularly violations of German law and against German interests," he told DW. "Measures were taken that were not covered in the task profile, which seems to have been the reason why [the government] took its time with the new profile, and revised it. They almost certainly waited for the BND reforms last year too."

Christian Flisek Mitglied NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss
Christian Flisek says it would not be in the public interest to release the task profileImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For some MPs on the parliamentary committee, it was vital to be able to view the APB, so as to see whether the BND had exceeded its remit by helping the NSA - which, it emerged, it had. "The NSA affair played a role in the delay because the key question was who can be a surveillance target for the BND. At first they didn't know whether to draw up a brand new task profile straight away," said Andre Hahn, Left party representative on the oversight committee. "The point was that the order profile was much too broad  - which is why many people said the BND went beyond its competences, e.g. when it spied on European institutions and governments."

"I always said it was unacceptable - we're supposed to check whether the BND acts properly according to its tasks, but we don't even know what its tasks are," Hahn told DW. "And meanwhile a CIA spy already has the document."

Top secret - but vague

The APB is put together by the government, and though individual ministries are allowed to suggest topics of interest, it remains a top secret document.

But the four-year cycle, as well as the weight of national security, means that what is made public about the APB is necessarily vague. According to the BND's website, the current focuses of the BND include "proliferation, international terrorism, state failure or conflicts over resources" and that current priority regions include the Middle East, North Africa, as well as West and Central Asia. And yet, there is no reason to believe that this list is exclusive, and the document itself is not even given to the Bundestag's intelligence oversight committee.

On top of this, the BND's instructions are obviously adapted during the course of the four years anyway, as Wolfgang Krieger, Marburg-based professor and member of an independent commission on the BND's history, explained. "If a conflict breaks out in Syria or Iraq or wherever, it is included in the BND's tasks," he said. "And there are additional instructions from the chancellery to the BND about what exactly they should do. The APB is just a general directive, so to speak."

Nevertheless, it's importance can't be underestimated. "The APB contains the main thematic and regional informational targets of our foreign secret service," said Flisek. "To make it public in parliament would be unthinkable - it wouldn't be in our interests and by the way that isn't the case in any country in the world."

The BND, which has only 6,500 officers, is a fraction of the size of the CIA and the NSA: "It can't even cover all crisis countries, which is why the APB defines the priorities," said Flisek.

Bundesnachrichtendienstes in Pullach
The BND was found to have taken on work for the NSAImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Countering the Russian threat

Krieger thinks the spectacular case of the informant Markus R. also played a part in causing the delay. Markus R. was a BND officer arrested in 2014 for selling over 200 secret documents to US intelligence agencies, and sentenced to eight years in prison in March last year - following a trial in which Krieger was an expert witness.

"One of the documents he gave to the Americans was the task profile from 2009," Krieger told DW. "Because of that, the Bundestag said: if it's been revealed in a court, it's not justifiable that the parliamentary oversight committee is not allowed to see it."

The government relented and gave the APB to the MPs, and though the document was never leaked, some of its details made it into the German press, which meant it was, in Krieger's word, "compromised." It remains unclear whether these leaks came from the Bundestag or from the CIA, but as things stand, the new APB will not be released to the parliamentary committee. Nevertheless, opposition politicians on the intelligence oversight committee are lobbying to be given access to the document - even if they're not allowed to actually get a copy.

Following revelations that Russia may have intervened in the US presidential election and may have helped get Donald Trump elected, there has been speculation in the media that the Kremlin would seek similar influence over Germany's election this September. Krieger could only speculate whether countering that threat would be one of the BND's new tasks, but he argued that the whole issue was overblown anyway.

"This whole circus that was made over in the US about intervention in the election campaign - that's always existed," he said. "States have always financially supported or provided information to certain interest groups or certain publications or press organizations in other states. I don't know what's new about that - the only new thing is that the internet has created new ways to influence politics, and that social media has made it impossible to tell who is actually spreading what news."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight