German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been among the most vocal critics of the National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence gathering methods. She famously called secret U.S. wiretaps “completely unacceptable” in 2013, after it was revealed that American intelligence had directly eavesdropped on her telephone conversations.
But now it seems that Merkel may need to point the finger of blame at her own government.
According to German news magazine Der Spiegel, Germany’s intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), spent years helping the NSA spy on European political leaders, including German politicians, all while shielding its activities from the German chancellor herself.
Der Spiegel reports that for more than a decade the BND was cooperating with daily “selector” request from the NSA. These selectors were pieces of personal identifying information like telephone numbers, email or IP addresses that the NSA would send to German intelligence. In turn, the BND provided additional information already held in its databases. All told, more than 800,00 of these selector request were reportedly fulfilled by BND.
By fulfilling selector request on German politicians and corporations, the BND was in violation of internal rules outlined by a 2002 intelligence sharing agreement between the United States and Germany. It appears the BND may have been ignorant to these violations at first, but Ars Technica reports that “as early as 2008” German intelligence knew it was in violation of the rules. However, it appears German intelligence continued to fulfill these request anyway for fear that the NSA would stop sharing information in reciprocity.
Evidently, it was only after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks in 2013—the same leaks that revealed the U.S. had tapped Merkel’s phone—that the BND began to take more seriously the task of reviewing selector requests to make sure they were not in violation of the rules.
All of this information has come to light because of an inquiry by the German federal parliament, launched in the wake of Snowden’s leaks. The parliamentary investigation claims that as many as 40,000 selector requests “targeting European and German interest” were made—far more than the 2,000 such request the BND initially claimed. In addition to seeking information on E.U. politicians, it appears the NSA was also seeking data on European businesses like EADS, the manufacturer of Airbus planes.
One of the more damning aspects of these allegations is they way that BND’s inappropriate handling selector requests was deliberately hidden from the chancellor herself. Only last month was Merkel reportedly made away of the BND’s collaboration with the NSA. Because of this secrecy, significant political consequences are expected, with widespread speculation that Gerhard Schindler, the head of the BND, will be forced to vacate his position.
These revelations are likely to further existing animosity between Germany and the United States over NSA spying. In addition to Merkel’s notable condemnation of U.S. intelligence agencies, the German government has taken significant steps to shield itself from NSA spying—everything from the use of domestic email servers for all German citizens to the use of typewriters for communicating sensitive government information.