Exclusive: Chairman warns German parliamentary inquiry into spying known as NSA Committee could force Angela Merkel’s government to disclose files on joint intelligence operations with UK
German spy inquiry could demand access to British intelligence secrets
The German inquiry was set up last year in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosure that the US spied on Mrs Merkel’s mobile phone Photo: Reuters
A German parliamentary inquiry into spying is demanding access to classified information on British intelligence, its chairman has said.
Prof Patrick Sensburg told the Telegraph his committee of MPs could go to court to force Angela Merkel’s government to disclose files on joint intelligence operations with Britain.
He also called for a new Europe-wide agreement to limit powers on data surveillance.
Britain has reportedly threatened to end intelligence cooperation with Germany if the files on joint operations are opened to the inquiry.
“In the end, we can go to our highest court and ask them to decide. We have a right as a parliamentary inquiry to get information from our government,” Prof Sensburg said.
“But I hope it won’t come to that point because that’s not a good situation for our partners.
“There’s no agreement with the British yet. There are a lot of documents we want to see that we’re looking for their agreement on.”
• Head of German inquiry into spying claims his own phone may have been hacked
• Britain ‘threatens to stop sharing intelligence’ with Germany
The warning presents the latest security threat to British intelligence, after officials warned that Russia and China had cracked the encryptions on secret files leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to withdraw compromised agents from operations in dangerous countries around the world.
Former U.S. defence contractor Edward Snowden (Reuters)
The German inquiry was set up last year in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosure that the US spied on Mrs Merkel’s mobile phone.
German prosecutors on Friday closed a criminal investigation into that case, citing lack of evidence.
But the parliamentary inquiry continues, and has taken on a wider remit, to investigate spying in general.
Prof Sensburg said the German government was in discussions with Britain to find an acceptable way of sharing the information with the inquiry.
His committee is facing a similar stand-off with the US over requests for files on joint operations with American agencies.
“I never expected a lorry full of lever arch files from the British Embassy to arrive outside my office,” Prof Sensburg said.
“Of course, we’re dealing with an issue that concerns intelligence. I understand that a lot of the information is top secret.
“It comes to a question of the branches of government: does it include parliament? We have a duty as MPs to monitor our government.”
The issue has underlined how decisions made in a committee room in Berlin can have a serious impact on British intelligence operations.
Prof Sensburg declined to comment on reports the British government sent a letter to Mrs Merkel’s office earlier this year threatening to end all intelligence cooperation if the files were shown to the inquiry.
Angela Merkel with her mobile phone
“I can’t talk to the British government as chairman of the committee,” he said, adding that he was relying on the German government to fnd a solution acceptable to Britain.
Mrs Merkel’s government is proposing solving a similar impasse with the US by appointing a special commissioner to read the classified files, according to reports.
The commissioner would then report back to the MPs.
The Americans have reportedly already frozen intelligence cooperation with German soldiers in Iraq over the inquiry, and declined to respond to requests for help locating a German hostage in Afghanistan.
The British and American concerns are believed to centre on a series of leaks of classified information suspected to have come from the inquiry.
Mrs Merkel’s office wrote to its members last year threatening them with prosecution if there were further leaks.
But Mr Sensburg denied his committee was the source of the leaks.
“None of those documents had stamps on them from the inquiry,” he said. “They could have been leaked from abroad, or by our own government. One has even been proved to be a fake.”
Initially set up in the wake of disclosures that the US National Security Agency spied on Mrs Merkel, the inquiry is known in Germany as the “NSA Committee”.
But it has found itself at the centre of an ever-widening spy scandal after allegations emerged that Germany’s own BND intelligence service spied on French government officials and other European targets – at the NSA’s request.
“I think these days we should rename it the BND Committee,” Prof Sensburg joked.
The dispute with the US is over the inquiry’s request to see a list of the phone numbers and email addresses the NSA asked the BND to monitor.
European countries including Austria and Belgium have opened their own investigations in the wake of allegations.
“I think it’s time for all of us in Europe, including the UK, to find a common policy on limits for data surveillance,” Prof Sensburg said.
Currently, different national intelligence agencies all have their own rules on what they’re allowed to spy on.
The BND filters out German results but not those from friendly European countries.
“It’s no good if Germany agrees to filters out European results, but other countries don’t,” Prof Sensburg said.
A member of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Prof Sensburg has often had to act as a moderating voice on the committee against the shriller demands of opposition members.
He is quick to distance himself from criticism of the UK after reports there was a listening post on the British Embassy in Berlin, for instance.
“I don’t know why the UK and the US were singled out for that, and not Russia or China,” he said.
Opposition inquiry members have already taken the German government to court once, to try to force it to allow Mr Snowden to come to Germany and testify in person.
The court rejected that bid, ruling that the government couldn’t give Mr Snowden immunity from extradition to the US.
“I think what Edward Snowden did is he gave this issue a face,” Prof Sensburg said.
“Without Snowden it would have been an issue for experts and freaks, not the wider public.”
By Justin Huggler, Berlin10:17AM BST 18 Jun 2015
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