German intelligence chiefs examine Snowden claims on data shared with US
German ministers and intelligence officials appear before a closed-door meeting to explain what they knew of data collection
Head of Germany’s intelligence agency Hans-Georg Maassen arrives for a session of the parliamentary intelligence control committee in Berlin yesterday. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
Top German ministers and intelligence officials appeared before a closed-door meeting yesterday in Berlin to explain what they knew of data collated by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
In a secure underground room beneath the Reichstag, the parliamentary control committee – which oversees Germany’s intelligence service – heard testimony on reports of massive data collation in Europe by US intelligence services.
Federal interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich flew to Washington last week demanding answers on the claims. After meetings he said he was satisfied that information gathered via the NSA’s Prism programme was crucial in averting terrorist attacks, including five in Germany. His ministry has since rowed back on that claim, saying yesterday that three of the five attacks were prevented “in the very early stages”.
Mr Friedrich declined to comment on his testimony yesterday, saying only that surveillance was a fact of the digital era and he urged citizens to protect their electronic communications with encryption software.
The revelations have increased pressure on the German government ahead of the September general election.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted on several occasions that she learned of the extent of NSA communications surveillance through media reports. The Bild tabloid reported on Monday that the German intelligence service (BND) had made regular requests to the NSA for data collected via its Prism programme, such as during efforts to free German citizens held hostage in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Some 10 weeks before the general election, German opposition parties have pounced on the NSA scandal. Declaring themselves unhappy with yesterday’s committee meeting, the Greens and Left Party have demanded a full parliamentary inquiry to find out what was known and when in Berlin about NSA surveillance.
Steffen Bockhahn, Left Party member of the parliamentary control committee, said the revelations showed that executive control of Germany’s intelligence service “is still in its infancy”.
“The intelligence service works in an in-transparent fashion, our control is marginal,” he said.
The Social Democrats (SPD) have declined to back calls for a parliamentary inquiry, saying it would only be able to begin its work in the autumn. Contributing to their reticence, observers suggest, is a concern of revelations about close German and US intelligence co-operation during the Schröder era.
“We are not calling into question the co-operation between intelligence services,” said SPD chief whip Thomas Oppermann, a member of the control committee. “But it has to take place on the basis of law, not a massive spying on German citizens.”
So far the NSA scandal has left no impact on opinion polls. While 78 per cent of Germans polled last week by German television agreed that the German leader should put more pressure on Washington for answers on the Snowden affair, a regular poll for Stern magazine puts Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) steady at 41 per cent – unchanged since April.