1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

I scratch your back

Diana Pessler / sst
July 8, 2013

Whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has said there are close ties between German and US intelligence authorities. Such secret cooperation has been going on for decades, experts say.

Files top secret (photo: imago/INSADCO)
Image: imago/INSADCO

Edward Snowden has done it again: after blowing the whistle on US secret service the National Security Agency (NSA), he told German news magazine Der Spiegel on Monday (08.07.2013), "They work hand in glove with German authorities."

Only last week, German authorities had pretended they had been left in the dark about the surveillance program PRISM. The presidents of all three German secret services testified to that effect in front of a parliamentary committee monitoring German intelligence.

Eward Snowden (photo by The Guardian via Getty Images)
Snowden says American intelligence worked hand in glove with German authoritiesImage: The Guardian/Getty Images

The panel's chairman, Thomas Oppermann, a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party was always skeptical. Given that the NSA is said to have monitored some 500 million phone calls, text messages, and emails per month, "I really can't fathom that no one knew about this," Oppermann told DW. "In any case, US intelligence operations have gotten out of hand."

Has Germany profited from US spying programs?

Intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom doesn't just believe that German authorities knew very well about the US data collection spree. He also thinks it possible that German intelligence profited from the surveillance programs.

According to Schmidt-Eenboom, German authorities have definitely profited from such programs "when it comes to international terrorism threats. The technical intelligence authorities of NATO states work closely together and are quite successful. And the [German foreign intelligence service] BND profits from it. That's one reason why the violations [of basic rights] by this partner haven't been brought to light," the analyst told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Thomas Oppermann SPD (photo: Oliver Lang/dapd)
Oppermann says getting more information from the US is vitalImage: dapd

Intelligence insiders and other experts are striking a common note on the recent media coverage of the NSA: German authorities depend strongly on cooperation, because they don't have the financial or the personnel resources, nor do they have the same far-reaching powers of other intelligence agencies.

The agencies exchange "finished intelligence" reports - summarized studies derived from intelligence "raw materials," Schmidt-Eenboom said. But things are different when it comes to terrorism and early warnings. "If the NSA discovers an acute threat, it will be sent immediately as an urgent matter to the respective German authorities and to the German chancellor's office."

A well-known example of such an exchange between friends is the case of the "Sauerland group," a terror cell. Germany only got wind of the group's planned terror attacks when American intelligence authorities passed on information they had found on the Internet.

Cooperation has been going on for decades

But how does the cooperation between German and US authorities work? It's clear that cooperation intensified after the terror attacks of September 11 shocked the world in 2001. In October of that year, all NATO states - including Germany - agreed to expand intelligence cooperation. Some of that agreement is still secret.

According to Schmidt-Eenboom, there's a long history of US intelligence in Germany. "Until 1968, the Allies had certain rights that allowed them to intercept on a large scale." According to historian Joseph Foschepoth, author of the study "Monitored Germany," this right still exists. In 1968, the German government agreed to a secret arrangement that still allows US intelligence to carry out surveillance activities in Germany.

Erich Schmidt-Eenboom (photo: imago/Müller-Stauffenberg)
Schmidt-Eenboom says German agencies depend on US intelImage: imago stock&people

Snowden has now also talked about an NSA subdivision - the "Foreign Affairs Directorate" - which is responsible for cooperation with other countries. Cooperation would be organized in such a way as to ensure that authorities' high-ranking politicians are protected from a "backlash," meaning that governments are only partly - or not at all - informed about activities.

Enlightening talks in Washington?

Der Spiegel now mentions another form of cooperation: the NSA passed on programs to the BND that were capable of analyzing foreign data streams. That cooperation was reportedly confirmed by the BND's president when he spoke before the parliamentary committee.

But Oppermann doesn't think these bits of information suffice - neither in regards to the German or the US intelligence authorities. "Ultimately we want to know if it's true what Snowden said. It's unacceptable that Snowden holds the privilege of interpretation for weeks on this matter and we can't check this with the Americans."

For the next couple of days, high-ranking German officials from both the government and intelligence agencies, as well as German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, are on a visit to Washington, and they are keen to talk. They hope to find out the truth about the accusations about the NSA snooping scandal.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Indian train crash in Balasore, Odisha
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage