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Itching to ask

Carla Bleiker / gb
July 17, 2013

A parliamentary oversight committee in Berlin would like to know how much the German government really knows about NSA spying activities in Germany. Their leverage, however, is limited.

An undated handout image by the National Security Agency (NSA) shows the NSA logo in front of the National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, USA. According to media reports, a secret intelligence program called 'Prism' run by the US Government's National Security Agency has been collecting data from millions of communication service subscribers through access to many of the top US Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple and Verizon. Reports in the Washington Post and The Guardian state US intelligence services tapped directly in to the servers of these companies and five others to extract emails, voice calls, videos, photos and other information from their customers without the need for a warrant. (Foto: picture alliance/dpa) / Eingestellt von wa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Were German intelligence services aware and informed of the US National Security Agency's surveillance activities in Germany? How many, if any, terrorist attacks in Germany were prevented, thanks to information from the NSA?

These are just two of the questions Germany's parliamentary oversight committee is itching to ask Chancellor Merkel's government.

Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich was summoned to testify before the committee on Tuesday (16.07.2013) following his trip to Washington last week for clarification from the US government on the NSA's activities in Germany.

Oversight tasks

What Friedrich told the committee is not known since the intelligence is secret. The interior minister's portfolio includes oversight of the German intelligence services.

Vice President Joe Biden drops by Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco's meeting with German Interior Minister Dr. Hans-Peter Friedrich, in the Situation Room at the White House, in Washington, D.C., July 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann) (zu dpa "USA versprechen Friedrich mehr Transparenz in Geheimdienstfragen " vom 12.07.2013) (This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House)
Most of the intelligence is secret: Minister Friedrich with US Vice-President BidenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The job of the 11 members of the parliamentary oversight committee is to keep the elected representatives of parliament informed of the activities of the German spy agencies and monitor their relationships with the government. The parliamentarians, however, are not permitted to tell their party colleagues or the public what they heard during these meetings.

"We can demand further information, we can demand to review files and dossiers; we can summon members of the government to report to the committee," committee member Hans-Christian Ströbele of the Green party, explained in a DW interview. "We can make things happen, but only if the government answers our questions," he added.

Wolfgang Neskovic, a former member of the oversight committee, has criticized the body's ineffectiveness because it cannot force the government or intelligence services to provide information. The control function is essentially non-existent, he said.

"It's comparable to a conductor on a train asking if you have paid and being satisfied if you say 'yes' without seeing your ticket," Neskovic said.

Merkel may testify

Hans-Christian Ströbele is also not satisfied with the information the government has provided so far in the NSA affair. He wants Chancellor Angela Merkel to appear in person before the committee. "She should tell parliament what she knows and what she knew. To date, we've only asked her ministers," Ströbele said. "She is, after all, the boss in the chancellery and the chancellery is the boss of the intelligence services," he stressed, adding that he believes Merkel knows more about NSA spying on German citizens than she has so far admitted.

Hans-Christian Ströbele, Green party Photo: Tim Brakemeier/dpa
We can only hope the government answers our questions, says StröbeleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

According to media reports, Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) has repeatedly requested communications data compiled and stored by the NSA on kidnapped Germans over the years. That begs the question, of course, how did the BND know that this data existed and wouldn't the government also have known that?

"Ms. Merkel will act as if she knew nothing," Steffen Bockhahn, a Left party member of the oversight committee, told German broadcaster NDR. Bockhahn said that "large quantities of data have been provided by the Americans and the British, of which the chancellery and the chancellor must be aware."

GettyImages 172560505 German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a press conference after a conference on promoting youth employment in Europe on July 3, 2013 in the chancellory in Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that record youth unemployment is 'perhaps the most pressing problem facing Europe' and warned of the threat of a 'lost generation', speaking on the eve of a meeting on the crisis. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Committee members think Chancellor Merkel knows more than she is sayingImage: AFP/Getty Images

After his trip to Washington, Interior Minister Friedrich justified the NSA surveillance with the war on terror. He said five attacks in Germany were prevented due to information from US intelligence services. He gave more specific information on two of those incidents, including the attack plans of the so-called 'Sauerland group' and the 'Düsseldorf cell.'

But opposition members of the oversight panel are skeptical. "When the interior minister travels to the White House and they tell him five attacks were prevented but he only has details on two, then it would seem obvious to ask what were the other three," said the chairman of the committee, Thomas Oppermann. The Social Democrat said he, too, wanted to prevent terrorist attacks "but that doesn't justify total surveillance of an entire population by a foreign intelligence service."