BERLIN — When Edward J. Snowden disclosed the extent of the United States data mining operations in Germany, monitoring as many as 60 million of the country’s telephone and Internet connections in one day and bugging its embassy, politicians here, like others in Europe, were by turns appalled and indignant. But like the French before them, this week they found themselves backpedaling.
In an interview released this week Mr. Snowden said that Germany’s intelligence services are “in bed” with the National Security Agency, “the same as with most other Western countries.” The assertion has added to fresh scrutiny in the European news media of Berlin and other European governments that may have benefited from the enormous American snooping program known as Prism, or conducted wide-ranging surveillance operations of their own.
The outrage of European leaders notwithstanding, intelligence experts and historians say the most recent disclosures reflect the complicated nature of the relationship between the intelligence services of the United States and its allies, which have long quietly swapped information on each others’ citizens.
“The other services don’t ask us where our information is from and we don’t ask them,” Mr. Snowden said in the interview, conducted by the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum, a computer security researcher, and published this week in the German magazine Der Spiegel. “This way they can protect their political leaders from backlash, if it should become public how massively the private spheres of people around the globe are being violated.”
Britain, which has the closest intelligence relationship with the United States of any European country, has been implicated in several of the data operations described by Mr. Snowden, including claims that Britain’s agencies had access to the Prism computer network, which monitors data from a range of American Internet companies. Such sharing would have allowed British intelligence agencies to sidestep British legal restrictions on electronic snooping. Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that its intelligence services operate within the law.
Another allegation, reported by The Guardian newspaper, is that the Government Communications Headquarters, the British surveillance center, tapped fiber-optic cables carrying international telephone and Internet traffic, then shared the information with the N.S.A. This program, known as Tempora, involved attaching intercept probes to trans-Atlantic cables when they land on British shores from North America, the report said.
President François Hollande of France was among the first European leaders to express outrage at the revelations of American spying, and especially at accusations that the Americans had spied on French diplomatic posts in Washington and New York.
There is no evidence to date that French intelligence services were granted access to information from the N.S.A., Le Monde reported last week, however, that France’s external intelligence agency maintains a broad telecommunications data collection system of its own, amassing metadata on most, if not all, telephone calls, e-mails and Internet activity coming in and out of France.
Mr. Hollande and other officials have been notably less vocal regarding the claims advanced by Le Monde, which authorities in France have neither confirmed nor denied.
Given their bad experiences with domestic spying, first under the Nazis and then the former the East German secret police, Germans are touchy when it comes to issues of personal privacy and protection of their personal data. Guarantees ensuring the privacy of mail and all forms of long-distance communications are enshrined in Article 10 of their Constitution.
When the extent of the American spying in Germany came to light the chancellor’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, decried such behavior as “unacceptable,” insisting that, “We are no longer in the cold war.”
But experts say ties between the intelligence services remain rooted in agreements stemming from that era, when West Germany depended on the United States to protect it from the former Soviet Union and its allies in the East.
“Of course the German government is very deeply entwined with the American intelligence services,” said Josef Foschepoth, a German historian from Freiburg University. Mr. Foschepoth spent several years combing through Germany’s federal archives, including formerly classified documents from the 1950s and 1960s, in an effort to uncover the roots of the trans-Atlantic cooperation.
In 1965, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, known by the initials BND, was created. Three years later, the West Germans signed a cooperation agreement effectively binding the Germans to an intensive exchange of information that continues up to the present day, despite changes to the agreements.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States saw a fresh commitment by the Germans to cooperate with the Americans in the global war against terror. Using technology developed by the Americans and used by the N.S.A., the BND monitors networks from the Middle East, filtering the information before sending it to Washington, said Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, an expert on secret services who runs the Research Institute for Peace Politics in Bavaria.
In exchange, Washington shares intelligence with Germany that authorities here say has been essential to preventing terror attacks similar to those in Madrid or London. It is a matter of pride among German authorities that they have been able to swoop in and detain suspects, preventing several plots from being carried out.
By focusing the current public debate in Germany on the issue of personal data, experts say Chancellor Angela Merkel is able to steer clear of the stickier questions about Germany’s own surveillance programs and a long history of intelligence sharing with the United States, which still makes many Germans deeply uncomfortable, more than two decades after the end of the cold war.
“Every postwar German government, at some point, has been confronted with this problem,” Mr. Foschepoth said of the surveillance scandal. “The way that the chancellor is handling it shows that she knows very well, she is very well informed and she wants the issue to fade away.”
Reporting contributed by Stephen Castle from London, Scott Sayare from Paris and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
July 9, 2013
By MELISSA EDDY
© 2013 The New York Times Company