Merkel and the secret services: At a safe distance

Status: 04.11.2021 5:04 p.m.

NSU, ​​NSA affair, terrorist attacks, cyber attacks: Angela Merkel also had to deal with the secret services again and again during her reign. How did the Chancellor feel about the spies?

Only a few sentences have shaped Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. “We can do it” during the refugee crisis of 2015 is certainly one of them. But there was also another sentence that was uttered two years earlier: “Spying on friends is not possible,” said the Chancellor in October 2013 to journalists. That was shortly after the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden became known, according to which the US secret service NSA had also targeted targets in Germany. Including Merkel’s cell phone.

In the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), the head of government’s sentence caused irritation among some employees. Don’t states have interests rather than friendships first? And does Merkel actually know what the BND is up to? Whom does the German service eavesdrop on and spy on?

Before the NSA committee of inquiry in the Bundestag, the Chancellor later stated that she did not know at the time that the BND was also spying out targets in friendly states. Merkel emphasized that it was not her job to dive into the “depths and shallows” of the espionage programs. You have to keep the “political mandate” in mind.

Helmut Schmidt preferred to read the newspaper rather than BND reports

Merkel and the secret services – what relationship did the Chancellor have with the spies during her term of office? A non-relationship, one might assume, like many chancellors before. Most of Merkel’s predecessors are said not to have had a particularly close relationship with the BND or the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. You should have rather kept a safe distance. All too understandable, because the services have a certain potential for scandal.

It is said of Helmut Schmidt that he preferred reading the morning newspaper to the BND reports. Gerhard Schröder, on the other hand, is said to have often valued the instruction given by the ministry.

In Merkel’s time there were numerous scandals and incidents that had to do with the secret services – her own and those of other countries. The series of murders by the NSU was exposed, there was the NSA affair, terrorist attacks on Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz, in Halle and Hanau. The right-wing extremist murder of the Kassel District President Walter Lübcke, the assassination attempt on a Chechen in the Kleiner Tiergarten in Berlin.

Spectacular cyber attacks also occurred during her term of office, on the German Bundestag in 2015, for example. The hackers, who are said to belong to Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, penetrated Merkel’s e-mail inboxes.

Merkel kept her distance

Every now and then the Chancellor praised the work of the German security authorities. For example, in February 2019, when she came to the opening ceremony of the new BND headquarters in Berlin-Mitte and said she was convinced “that Germany needs a strong and efficient foreign intelligence service more urgently than ever”. According to Merkel, the BND makes an indispensable contribution to security and peace in Germany. “And I’m very grateful for that.”

Nevertheless, the head of government always kept a distance from the services. The former US secret service director James Clapper suspects that Merkel’s youth in the GDR were decisive. “For them, the Stasi was not an invented specter,” writes Clapper about the Chancellor in his biography. “She grew up under their pressure, and I think that’s why she never trusted the secret services – her own and that of other countries. She also didn’t want to know what their secret services were doing.”

BND assessments of the Ukraine crisis

That is probably not entirely true. It is true that Merkel personally only very rarely took part in the intelligence service situation (ND situation), i.e. the briefing by the secret services, which takes place every Tuesday morning in the Chancellery. Nevertheless, from time to time she also allowed herself to be instructed personally by the BND. During the Ukraine crisis, for example, the service delivered its assessments directly to the Chancellor’s office every morning.

It should come as no surprise that Merkel kept a certain distance from the secret services. A scandal in the services can quickly reach the top of government. This became apparent in August 2013, when the head of the Chancellery at the time, Ronald Pofalla, just in time for the federal election, declared the NSA affair to be over. The full extent of the surveillance activities was still far from clear.

New agents, more powers

The organizational structure was then rebuilt. A new supervisory position was created, a kind of firewall: the representative for the federal intelligence services, who reports directly to the head of the Chancellery. Parliamentary control of the services has also been strengthened. There is now a permanent authorized representative of the parliamentary control body who supports the members of the Bundestag.

The BND has also received a new law, numerous aspects of espionage activities that were previously unclear legally have now been regulated. Also due to pressure from the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. In addition, another supervisory authority will soon take up its work, the newly established Independent Control Council, a judicial body that is supposed to control the surveillance activities of the BND.

The technical supervision and control was strengthened under Merkel. At the same time, however, the secret services have grown faster than ever before. They got more money and more staff. In 2010 the BND still had a budget of 478 million euros, in 2021 it was already more than one billion euros. And the services have more powers today, so the protection of the Constitution is now also allowed to use spy software to monitor encrypted communication on smartphones.

Merkel’s old mobile phone, a Siemens S 55, which she used as CDU party leader and as Chancellor, has meanwhile become an object of contemporary history. The cell phone is also said to have been monitored by the NSA. It is now in the House of History in Bonn.

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