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Security

'We need to protect ourselves from our friends'

The former German secret service coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer, says that industrial espionage is going on under the cover of the anti-terror campaign. And Germany is a particularly interesting target.

DW: There's considerable concern about the excessive collection of data by the US secret services. As the former coordinator of the German secret service in the chancellery, are you also concerned?

Bernd Schmidbauer: I'm in two minds about it. Everybody knows what technical possibilities there are today, but: such a monster of data collection, that's something new - the way in which everything has been sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, including private information. That doesn't bode well for the future.

You are asking for more restraint in the gathering of information. Was that the case for the US side in the past?

We always had a pretty good working relationship. It's something new, that there should be this gigantic level of surveillance among friends.

'All-round defense needed'

Do you accept Chancellor Angela Merkel's indignation about the bugging of EU embassies? Shouldn't one assume that the NSA also bugs friends?

I found Ms. Merkel's reaction completely normal. But I remember that, in the 90s, I was already warning that we need all-round defense. One only has to see what is reported about China and Russia and all the evil neighbors in the East, and the frightful scenarios which are put about. And now that's exactly what's happening among friends, but to an even greater extent. The worst thing is really that our neighbor and EU partner, the UK, has been helping to tap the cables across the Atlantic. That must have been a surprise for Ms Merkel.

Was the German counter-intelligence asleep? It's not exactly new that embassies have been bugged.

Of course there were mistakes. When I hear the president of the European Parliament complaining that offices in Brussels have been bugged, then I ask myself whether the people there are living in dreamland. You have to ensure that your office is clean.

'We never did anything like this'

Does the European Union need its own counter-intelligence service?

It certainly needs at least counter-intelligence advice from the secret services of the countries which belong to the EU. You'd have to be careful, though, that it didn't lead to European partners spying on each other in Brussels. But it is needed.

You were the intelligence services coordinator - did the German foreign intelligence service BND never bug embassies?

As far as I'm aware, we never had to adopt such methods - we always had other ways of getting information abroad.

Are the German services restrained when it comes to friends?

One does have friends in this field, and among friends, there is actually less and less reason to spy on each other, since the contact is becoming closer and closer.

GettyImages 171973706
Telecom network cables are pictured in Paris, on June 30, 2013. The European Union angrily demanded answers from the United States over allegations Washington had bugged its offices, the latest spying claim attributed to fugitive leaker Edward Snowden. German weekly Der Spiegel said its report, which detailed covert surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) on EU diplomatic missions, was based on confidential documents, some of which it had been able to consult via Snowden. AFP PHOTO THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

The intelligence services gather up information "like a vacuum cleaner"

Was the NSA in Brussels interested in spying for economic reasons?

That's the other big issue. If I put together all the recent information, then economic espionage is no longer a minor problem - it's not just a left-over from anti-terror activity. It's rather causing billions of euros worth of damage to us. And it's the Americans and the British, who are always talking about fair competition and about rules against corruption and bribery, who are breaking all kinds of rules with such espionage activities. This is a very shady example of distortion of the global market.

'Industrial espionage becoming normal'

Do we need more counter-intelligence towards friends?

There are patents and technologies in our country which should not fall into foreign hands since that would harm us economically. We have to end our carefree attitude on this. There are not just a few cases where specific patents and documents have turned up where they didn't belong. It's apparently become normal that industrial espionage goes on in a big way under the cover of the fight against terror.

By both the US and Britain?

By everyone. And Germany is especially interesting as a large industrial nation with a high level of technological progress. It might not be worth the effort for a developing country in Africa, but it's worth it for us, and therefore we have to assume that we are being attacked on all sides. You can read about the attacks in the intelligence services reports and in other reports, but so far it's always been about one side: it's been about the evil Chinese, or these evil people, or those evil people. They've never been talking so far about our dear friends.

Are we, the Germans, the goodies then?

No, not at all. That's why we need common international regulations which are policed and imposed.

'It may be tempting but ...'

Does the BND do industrial espionage?

No. That's not in its list of tasks, and it's also controlled.

So what do you mean then when you say that the German secret services are not the goodies?

We are also hunter-gatherers abroad. We have to be. If I think about areas of tension, crisis areas, areas in which our interests are being damaged, then we have to try to get the information we need. We try as hard as all the others.

That's the job of the secret services. But do we also carry out industrial espionage?

Certainly not. We certainly don't carry out industrial espionage. In other words, the information we gather is not used to give us an economic advantage.

Is there any discussion among those responsible for the intelligence services as to whether we should carry out industrial espionage?

That is not in accordance with our principles.

But the temptation is there?

The temptation is always there. We also have the temptation to abuse communication technology. But just because we can do it, that doesn't mean by a long way that we may do it. We have an uncontrolled technology which can do anything, and I mean anything.

You say the temptation is there. Do the mechanisms of self-control work in Germany, or are there always cases where the self-control doesn't work?

That's hard to say, very hard: there can always be illegal activities. But it doesn't make any sense for Germany to carry out industrial espionage actively.

Bernd Schmidbauer entered parliament in 1983 and became Chancellery Minister in 1991 under Helmut Kohl. In that position, he was responsible until 1998 for the coordination of Germany's intelligence services. From 2002 until 2006 he was a member of the parliamentary intelligence services committee.

DW.DE