The new German spying scandal is a big deal

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 23, 2015

German media organizations, such as Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, are reporting on Thursday on a spying scandal that threatens to create new controversy over the NSA.

What’s the story?

Previous fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations led to the German Bundestag (federal Parliament) setting up a Committee of Inquiry into the affair, and in particular into the relationship between the German intelligence service (the BND) and the NSA. This committee had a rocky start, with failed efforts to summon Snowden, a former NSA contractor, as a witness and complaints that it did not have access to much of the information that it needed.

Now, however, it looks as though it has uncovered paydirt regarding the relationship between the BND and the NSA. The NSA, in order to target its surveillance, needs ‘selectors’ — identifying information such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, IP addresses or the like that are linked to a specific individual or business. Under the cooperation agreement between the NSA and BND, the NSA can ask for selectors — but only so long as the predictors are directly linked, for instance, to anti-terrorism intelligence. It appears that the NSA made large numbers of requests that ignored the limits set out in the agreement, and it appears probable that at least on some occasions, the BND gave the NSA the information it was looking for.

This sounds pretty technical — why are people getting upset?

Because it suggests that the German intelligence service cooperated with U.S. efforts to spy on European — and German — companies and citizens. For example, the German intelligence service was asked to provide selectors for EADS, a massive European arms company, Eurocopter, and the French government. It’s a little as if Germany had asked the NSA for information that would have allowed it to spy better on Lockheed Martin, and the NSA had not told the president because it didn’t want to hurt its relationship with the Germans. In addition, the German and French governments are extraordinarily close — to the point that senior German officials often spend time working on exchange arrangements for the French government and vice versa. Even though French spies notoriously have little compunction in their own surveillance activities, this will be quite embarrassing for the German government.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post