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NSA Scandal

Opinion: An agency of questionable intelligence

A year after the Snowden revelations, Germany's domestic spy agency has so little to say about the NSA surveillance scandal it calls into question the intelligence of the intelligence agency, says DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

Germany's domestic security agency, the Office for the Protection of the German Constitution (BfV), is an "indispensable element of our solid democracy," according to Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. And it's true. If the 2,776 officials fulfill the office's ambitious goals: protect the constitution, the state, and the freedom and security of people living in Germany.

In light of the many dangers and threats the country faces, it would be unrealistic and presumptuous to expect a 100 percent success rate. But the office should at least create the impression that it is doing everything it can to fulfill its goals. At the moment, that is not the case.

On the credit side is everything connected with the fight against terrorism. BfV President Hans-Georg Maassen and his staff can point to the fact that Germany has not been a victim of an Islamist extremist attack. That terrorists still have plans against Germany, as the BfV chief maintains, is easy to believe. But dealing with abstract terror warnings is still difficult, because ever since the terrible attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, Germany has tightened laws at the expense of civil rights and freedoms.

What NSA?

The spy agencies, especially the German BND - the country's foreign intelligence agency - are the main beneficiaries of the new laws. The BfV's annual report, presented Wednesday (18.06.2014), shows how closely German and international agencies cooperate. The exchange of information has never been as easy as it is today - even when it ends up breaking the law. The BfV's now-ditched "anti-terror database" is one example of that.

The revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden have opened up an issue that involves the courts and the parliament and needs to be addressed by the BfV. It certainly deserves more attention than the tight-lipped reaction offered so far. A search for "NSA" in the 384-page report turns up just two references.

Assumptions and speculation

The first mention of the insatiable US spy agency comes in the chapter on far-left extremism and concerns demonstrations and publications. The second and last mention of the NSA occurs in the section "Espionage and other intelligence activities." Despite the copious material that Snowden produced, Maassen still calls it "assumptions and speculation," as he said on Wednesday.

The report itself says that accusations against the NSA and other Western intelligence agencies "make clear the wide spectrum of new forms of espionage." Lines like this are no less than the official trivialization of the largest spy scandal of our time. It's easy to suspect that the attempt to play down the NSA scandal serves a political goal - after all, the BfV is part of the German Interior Ministry.

Failure as an early-warning system

Reading between the lines, it's easy to see that Germany's domestic spy agency has a guilty conscience, when its report includes phrases like "strengthening defense against espionage," referring to a plan set out by the German government.

In that regard, the office is hoping a parliamentary inquiry committee into the NSA scandal will provide an "additional impulse." Meaning it will be up to the government and parliament to do what the domestic intelligence agency couldn't. The BfV calls itself an "early-warning system." In the case of the NSA, this system failed - And there is little reason to think it's doing any better at present.

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