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Espionage

German government under fire over spying accusations

Following revelations that Germany's intelligence agency spies on Turkey and "accidentally" intercepted Hillary Clinton's and John Kerry's phone calls, pressure is growing on the German government to clarify its stance.

Some things said by politicians come back to haunt them later. This is the situation German Chancellor Angela Merkel now finds herself in, even though she always chooses her words carefully.

A few months ago, following revelations about the NSA tapping her cell phone, Merkel famously stated, "Spying between friends is simply unacceptable." This quote is now being used in nearly every report about the alleged espionage carried out by Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND).

A major humiliation for the German government could be in the works. After all, it was only recently that German politicians were harshly criticizing the US for spying on Germany. And Germany also expelled the top CIA official in the country after the activities of two US spies came to light.

Key US politicians on the radar

Now it has been revealed that the BND intercepted at least one call made by Hillary Clinton during her time as US secretary of state in 2012. The German government has responded by saying that the call was picked up "by accident" as part of an intelligence-gathering focus on the Middle East. And in 2013 the agency allegedly recorded a call made by Clinton's successor John Kerry.

There has been no official reaction to the accusations from the American side yet. Both the US embassy in Berlin and the State Department in Washington have declined to comment on the issue. One US intelligence service employee reacted skeptically, telling Germany's "Bild" newspaper that "the secretary of state's conversations are encrypted just the same way as those of the US president." He added that maybe, Clinton's call could have been picked up via an unsecured connection.

Hillary Clinton und John Kerry
(Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Kerry and Clinton had their phones hacked by the BND

Now the big question is whether the German intelligence service engages in systematic espionage on the same level as the US and spies on politicians from friendly countries. And this could become unpleasant for the German government.

Reactions from the opposition were quick to arrive. Green Party politician Konstantin von Notz accused the government of hypocrisy, telling Germany's Deutschlandfunk radio that the government "reacts in a bigoted way and applies double standards."

The ruling coalition, however, is rejecting some of the accusations. According to Patrick Sensburg, chairman of the German parliament's NSA inquiry committee and member of the Christian Democratic Union, Germany doesn't conduct any targeted spying on foreign politicians.

A BND spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency that Germany was not tapping the phones of allied countries and said the US was not a target. "Any accidental recordings are deleted immediately," she added.

But while it seems that the Clinton and Kerry calls intercepted by the BND were indeed just a by-catch, the agency has been accused of not deleting one of them as it claims to do.

Who is considered a 'friend?'

Meanwhile, the German government has indirectly confirmed media reports that the BND has been spying on fellow NATO country Turkey for years. According to reports by news magazine "Der Spiegel" and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung" (FAS) newspaper, Turkey belongs to the core target countries under observation by the German intelligence service. This revelation could stir up more controversy than the reports of tapped phone calls.

The German government has defended this line of practice vehemently, saying that Turkey cannot be compared to the US or European countries like France and Great Britain. What happens in Turkey has a direct influence on domestic security in Germany, government sources told FAS. This includes the activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, left- and right-wing Turkish groups in Germany, drug smugglers and people smugglers.

An anti-NSA poster at a demonstration in Hamburg, Germany
(Photo: imago/Philipp Szyza)

Germany demonstrated widely against NSA spying - but is the BND doing the same?

According to Christian Democratic Union faction deputy chairman Andreas Schockenhoff, all of this justifies systematic spying on Turkey - a NATO member and EU accession candidate.

"Three million Turks live in Germany," Schockenhoff told FAS. "Some Turkish organizations in Germany are classified as terrorist groups and it's a matter of course that we do everything we can to find out how these organizations are supported from Turkey."

Rolf Mützenich from the Social Democratic Party sees things a bit differently. "I consider NATO members to be partners," he told the paper and expressed concerns that the already difficult relationship with Turkey could suffer extra strain as a result of the revelation.

Turkey has reacted cautiously to the reports. Mehmet Ali Sahin, vice-chairman of the ruling AKP party, said the accusations would be assessed thoroughly and that they "need to be taken seriously." The Turkish government and foreign ministry are to examine the matter.

Differing standpoints

Sensburg told ARD television that he finds intelligence-gathering activities to be a sensible measure in "crisis zones" and "countries classified as vulnerable." But The Left party politician Gregor Gysi criticized the statement, telling ARD that "they always find some sort of justification in hindsight for why they needed some kind of information."

"I am very critical, for example, of the way Turkey lets the IS terrorists march through its territory - but that's no reason to spy on each other," said Gysi.

His concluding statement may be particularly unpleasant for the BND to hear: "I think the intelligence service world is crazy."

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