The BND Scandal

As reports emerge about the cooperation between Germany’s intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), and the U.S.’ National Security Agency (NSA), the German government is coming under increasing pressure from the public. According to the opposition party Die Linke, the government made false statements to the Bundestag regarding its findings of attempted industrial espionage by the NSA. Now, accusations of a cover-up are flying. But are those accusations justified? The German press offers a mixed review.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière was Chief of Staff of the German Federal Chancellery from 2005 to 2009 and was responsible for supervising the BND. Within that period, the BND informed de Maizière that the NSA had gathered Information about companies such as the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) (now Airbus Group) and its subsidiary company Eurocopter. Yet, despite a parliamentary inquiry from Die Linke, the German government denied any action that could indicate industrial espionage by the NSA.

Spiegel Online claims that, if the allegations are substantiated, the only question is who has to resign from office as a sacrifice: BND Chief Gerhard Schindler, de Maizière, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. The federal government may have rejected two parliamentary inquiries regarding industrial espionage in a deliberate cover up, but it also may just be sloppiness. Either way, Chancellor Merkel must clear up the situation in order to save her reputation.

Similar to the previous argument that sloppiness, rather than a deliberate cover-up, may be a reason for the government’s inaction, the Tagezeitung claims that the Federal Chancellery just neglected its responsibility to oversee the BND. The Chief of Staff changed, but Merkel remained chancellor.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung stressed that de Maizière is not solely accountable.  Parliamentary inquiries, in general, are always directed toward the federal government as a whole. That means that the Interior Ministry, as well as the Chancellery, answers questions regarding each of their areas of operation and publishes them on behalf of the federal government. Due to the fact that the Chancellery falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government, de Maizière and Peter Altmeier, current Chief of Staff of the Chancellery, responded on behalf of the federal government. Altmeier stated that cooperation between the two intelligence agencies was in order—even though there was an obvious conflict of interest. An appropriate response from the German leadership could thus be withholding comment for reasons of confidentiality.

Yet another source—Die Welt—refers to the government’s response as formally correct. But the NSA’s interest in the Airbus group is political, due to Airbus’ involvement with a Russian bank. Of course, the Pentagon was wondering whether a reorientation as a Euro-Russian company was imminent. The eavesdropping would have been not “economic espionage,” but political reconnaissance.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung offers a completely different take. It states that the espionage of the U.S. is justified and is in Germany’s interest and cannot be considered industrial espionage. Germany is now one of the major exporters of arms, security-critical components, and infrastructure to Russia, China, and the Arab world. Germany needs these exports. They are part of its prosperity, its system, and its strength and stability in Europe. But they are also dangerous. From the U.S. point of view, it is important who receives what, in which form, and in which amount, as well as who is friendly with whom. Should the Chancellery react harshly and publicly? The FAZ says no. The Chancellery must keep the big picture in mind: preserving the transatlantic alliance. Both the defense and infrastructure industry already know that they are being watched when they do business with Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. If Germany simultaneously seeks to maintain world peace and wants to engage in its trade with these countriesit must accept strategic espionage within its industry as a fact and understand it to be an incentive for self-correction and the free play of forces.

The articles cited here are not a representative sample, but rather are a conscious selection of articles that tackle the subject matter from different angles. The opposing views indicate that it is not clear who is directly responsible, or even if the federal government acted within its right of keeping information confidential. As this case progress over time, a different stance on that matter may emerge.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.