Three Different Prisms? Parliament Seeks Clarity in NSA Scandal

Veit Medick and Philipp Wittrock
Spiegel Online
July 26, 2013

A Thursday meeting in German parliament was supposed to shed light on NSA surveillance activities in Germany. It only added to the mystery. A US response to a Berlin inquiry claims that there are actually three unrelated Prism programs.

The meeting lasted for three hours, partially the result of the complex nature of the material being addressed. The oppressive heat hanging over Berlin this week didn’t help.

“Mr. Prism is an important witness,” Hans-Christian Ströbele said into the microphone, adding that he would love to ask “Mr. Prism” a few questions. Ströbele is the senior Green Party representative on the Parliamentary Control Panel, the body in the Bundestag assigned to keep tabs on the activities of Germany’s intelligence agencies. And the hot weather would seem to be taking its toll. He was referring to Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence officer who revealed the full extent of American data surveillance operations to the world in June and who is still stuck in the transit area of Moscow’s international airport.

When he was made aware of his slip-up, Ströbele grabbed his head. But he is far from the only one who is having a hard time keeping things straight these days. It seems that hardly a week goes by without the name of yet another top-secret computer program hitting the headlines — combined with accusations, assertions and denials. The spying scandal focused on the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) has continued even as Berlin politics slows down for the summer break.

On Thursday, for the fifth time since the first revelations from Snowden were published in the beginning of June, the Parliamentary Control Panel met, and there were hopes that it might finally shed some light onto the true nature of Germany’s cooperation with the NSA. Snowden, of course, wasn’t present. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla — who is the senior Chancellery official tasked with monitoring Germany’s intelligence activities — was there.

An Analytical Tool

So too were the heads of Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, there to provide more information about the programs they use. According to those present at the closed-door meeting, the officials presented several different types of software that are already in use or are planned, spending extensive time discussing the program XKeyscore, the comprehensive surveillance software written about by SPIEGEL this week.

Gerhard Schindler, head of Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), said that his foreign intelligence agency had used the program since 2007. But it was not, he said, according to meeting participants, used to collect data. Rather, he insisted, it was an analytical tool. He also stated that his agency’s use of XKeyscore in no way represented a violation of German law. Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, said that his agency had been using a test version of XKeyscore since 2012.

The acknowledgement marks a significant step forward in the German debate over US surveillance techniques. Even as the German populace has been extremely unnerved by revelations that the NSA monitors some 500 million data communications each month, Merkel’s government has done little to answer questions regarding the extent to which Berlin cooperates with Washington on surveillance activities. This week’s article in SPIEGEL also cited an NSA document indicating that the German was “modifying its interpretation of (privacy laws) to afford the BND more flexibility in sharing protected information with foreign partners.”

Schindler on Thursday appeared to be taking such accusations seriously. He issued an official statement in which he denied trying to weaken German data protection laws. He did, however, confirm that his agency feels that some paragraphs of the “G-10” law relating to passing on data should be softened. That, Schindler said, is something that he also told his US counterparts.

‘Focused, Targeted and Legal’

In addition to testimony from Schindler and Maassen, officials also read a written statement from the NSA in response to a query from the German government. According to the statement, there are three separate Prism programs, all of them unconnected to each other. Meeting participants say the NSA response said that one of the Prism programs was only used internally. That program had thus far remained secret. Another of the programs was used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Yet another NSA tool — vaguely described in the statement and allegedly “totally unrelated to the first” — carries the name PRISM and “tracks and queries requests pertaining to our Information Assurance Directorate.”

The NSA response, meeting participants said, focused primarily on the Prism program that whistleblower Edward Snowden made public — a tool that allows the NSA to engage in the vast surveillance of electronic communication connections. In the response, the US intelligence agency vehemently denied that the program is used to indiscriminately collect huge quantities of data in Germany. The collection of data, the response said, is subject to court authorization and is primarily used to combat terrorism. Its use is “focused, targeted, judicious and far from sweeping,” the one-page response says.

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