NSA whistleblowers' testimony electrifies Bundestag committee

Berlin Letter: Spy scandals have returned a Cold War atmosphere to the German capital

Former technical director of the US National Security Agency William Binney arriving for a parliamentary inquiry in Berlin  into the NSA’s activities. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Former technical director of the US National Security Agency William Binney arriving for a parliamentary inquiry in Berlin into the NSA’s activities. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters


Nostalgia is not what it used to be, but espionage fans can rejoice that Berlin is once again bristling with spy scandals just as it was in the Cold War era.

At the centre of it all is Germany’s federal foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND. After decades in a leafy suburb of Munich, the agency is in the process of moving its secretive operations – and 4,000 staff – to a new bunker-like headquarters in the heart of Berlin.

It’s been a bumpy journey: building work on the sprawling 260,000sq m site began in 2006, with a budget of €720 million. With the job almost complete the price tag has quietly crept beyond €1 billion, largely because someone, probably a foreign intelligence service, made off with the building blueprints.

A stolen USB stick – reportedly containing the location of alarms, emergency exits, anti-terrorism equipment and internal cable layouts – forced a rapid redesign, long delays and extra costs. But building woes are the least of the BND problems in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s global spying operations.

Data collection

A cross-party Bundestag inquiry was this week hearing testimony about US mass data collection from two former NSA agents-turned-whistleblowers, William Binney and Thomas Drake.

Binney, who for 30 years was a cryptomathematician and technical director at the NSA, resigned in October 2001 in protest at what he calls the agency’s “wrong turn”, using the 9/11 attacks to justify a mass global surveillance drive. “The goal is control of the people,” he told German MPs. “They want to have information about everything; this is really a totalitarian approach.”

“Totalitarian” is not a word to be used lightly in Berlin, and the repeated use of the word by the 70-year-old NSA veteran – an idol of Edward Snowden – electrified the German committee. Asked about co-operation contracts between the NSA and BND, Binney answered the question only after the committee went into closed session.


A second NSA man turned whistleblower, Thomas Drake, told the committee his former employer’s spying was the “ultimate form of control” that was “strangling the world”. Drake dismissed as “beyond any credibility” German intelligence claims that they knew nothing of mass data collection by the NSA on German soil. He even accused Germany of duplicity in its outrage over US mass surveillance, saying the BND operated as an “addendum appendix of the NSA”.

It is these claims of BND co-operation with the NSA that are likely to cause the most friction in the Berlin inquiry. Such alleged co-operation is one suggested reason why the federal government – and government MPs in the inquiry – have been so cool on accepting Edward Snowden’s offer to testify in Berlin. The inquiry members have offered to meet Snowden in Moscow for an informal chat, but the ex-NSA contractor says he is not interested in assisting them unless he is granted asylum to testify in person in Berlin.

Facing into a long, hot summer of hearings, opposition committee members claim the government’s lukewarm approach to Snowden speaks volumes about their true level of concern over NSA surveillance. Things should get interesting when the committee questions the heads of the BND and domestic intelligence about how the NSA managed to spy on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.

Key question

The key question: did they really know nothing about it until Der Spiegel magazine passed on Snowden information to Merkel’s office? If not, why not?

If need be, the German leader herself may be called to testify alongside German IT student Sebastian Hahn. Like the chancellor’s mobile phone, his computer was identified this week as another target of NSA surveillance via the XKeyscore programme.

Hahn, who operates a server on behalf of the anonymising internet network “Tor”, is now preparing a formal complaint for the German authorities. “It’s a massive invasion of my privacy to have every server connection from my computer in Germany recorded by a foreign intelligence service,” he said.

After 12 hours of testimony on Thursday, committee members were shaken awake late in the evening by a BND announcement it had uncovered a double agent in its ranks.

The unnamed 31-year-old man has reportedly admitted selling secret documents to Russian intelligence. And, in an elegant le Carré twist, he reportedly offered to pass on to the NSA confidential information about Berlin’s inquiry into the US agency’s activities.

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