Germany reforms its main intelligence service


The German parliament has subjected the country’s intelligence service, the BND, to increased government scrutiny. But critics object that it also gives the BND wide-ranging new powers to spy on foreign nationals.

Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has passed a comprehensive reform of the country’s main intelligence service, the BND. The new legislation strengthens government monitoring of intelligence activities while explicitly allowing the BND to carry out certain types of surveillance activities.

The reform comes in the wake of the 2013 revelations by American whistleblower Edward Snowden that a number of national intelligence services, including the BND, had spied on behalf of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and that the NSA had spied on its allies. That prompted the formation of a German parliamentary committee to draft intelligence agency reforms.

The new legislation subjects the BND to monitoring by an “independent panel” of two judges and a federal prosecutor and a “permanent commissioner” from the Interior Ministry. It stipulates that surveillance of international communications networks must be authorized by the Chancellor’s Office rather than by the BND itself and explicitly prohibits economic and industrial espionage.

The new laws also provide for better protection for whistleblowers within intelligence services and subjects the BND to annual public hearings instead of private ones, as has been the case.New York Pardon Snowden Kampagne Videoschalte (Reuters/B. McDermid)

Explicit permissions

On the other hand, the reforms explicitly allow the BND to direct espionage operations at EU institutions and other EU member states, if they are aimed at gathering “information of significance for [Germany’s] foreign policy and security.”

The reform also permits the BND to cooperate with foreign intelligence services like the NSA if it serves specific purposes, including fighting terrorism, supporting the German military on foreign missions or collecting information concerning the safety of Germans abroad.

The legislation was passed with the votes of the governing Conservative-Social Democratic coalition, which said that the reforms address the concerns raised by the Snowden leaks while allowing the BND to use 20th century means to ensure Germany’s security.

“How else is the BND supposed to protect us against terrorism other than listening in on conversations between people outside of Germany?” said Clemens Binninger of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the chairman of the Bundestag’s NSA parliamentary committee.

The opposition Left Party and the Greens voted against the legislation, saying that instead of reining in the BND it rewards the German intelligence service with new powers and will lead to the infringement of the rights of people outside Germany.

Green Party spokesman for Internet policy Konstantin von Notz called the legislation “unconstitutional” and predicted that it would be rejected by Germany’s highest court.