Spy Talk Listening in Legitimately

Have intelligence agencies been stealing company secrets? Or have they just been keeping tabs on arms trading?
Spy station in Bavaria.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic security agency, already has a reputation for playing down fears that intelligence agencies are listening to too many conversations.

He came under the spotlight in 2014, when he spoke about revelations, made by American whistleblower Edward Snowden, that American intelligence agencies had eavesdropped on politicians, including German chancellor Angela Merkel

Speaking as head of the domestic security agency, officially known as the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, he said at the time that he had no evidence about the allegations.

His statement at the time that "we continue to assume that the Americans comply with German law in Germany," caused outrage, as critics said he was in denial about reality.

But a year later, he is sending out the same message. This time round, he is responding to reports that the U.S. secret services investigated German and European companies, with the cooperation of Germany's own intelligence agency, the BND.

In an interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Maassen said the media is jumping to conclusions that his agency does not necessarily agree with. “Once again, the media think certain things are obvious and we don’t,” he said.

Mr. Maassen said his office is investigating the allegations, but said he currently has no evidence that American intelligence agencies are carrying out corporate espionage in Germany.

Will Mr. Maassen now face renewed accusations of failing to see the obvious? E.A.D.S, now renamed Airbus, Eurocopter and Siemens are just some of the companies that have been monitored by U.S. agencies with German cooperation, according to recent reports.

Mr. Maassen points out that all the named companies deal with weapons, and could have been legitimately monitored by authorities who were on the lookout for signs of arms proliferation, an exercise that is legal in Germany.

Mr. Maassen pointed out that the fact that a company is on the selectors' list is not proof that it is being investigated, but said that the companies concerned are nevertheless armaments companies or companies closely related to the arms industry, so it is entirely conceivable that they may have been monitored due to issues relating to proliferation. That would be permissible under German law.

Mr. Maassen said he was reluctant to draw any conclusions until he had seen the results of a more detailed investigation into the matter.

Both intelligence experts and industry sources now doubt whether either the American or German intelligence agencies had any interest in monitoring these companies to learn industry secrets.

Germany's economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has already said the government does not believe there was any evidence of industrial espionage anywhere except some known instances at E.A.D.S. "

There are also other reasons sources do not suspect wrongdoing. For a start there is no grey area: both intelligence agencies explicitly forbidden from engaging in this form of economic espionage. Furthermore, experts can see no motive for this, at least not on the BND's side: "A German service will not intentionally harm its own economy," the head of security at a group listed on Germany's main stock exchange told Handelsblatt. This particular expert suggests that any security breaches that do come to light will turn out to be caused by human error, not by willful wrongdoing.

Most of these experts agree with Mr. Maassen, that if intelligence agencies were monitoring these companies, they were doing so as part of a wider surveillance program to monitor trade embargoes against states such as Iran.

Niko Härting, an expert in constitutional law, said: "Anyone who makes accusations of treason or industrial espionage has failed to understand that monitoring the arms industry is one of the core tasks of the BND."

Mr. Härting is a privacy activist and has sued the BND over its collection of data, but even he believes a large chunk of the foreign intelligence service work is on this. Contrary to the information presented to the public, he said Germany’s spies put at least as many resources into this task as into counter-terrorism.

Experts also suggest there was no intention to steal knowledge: the area of collaboration between the U.S. agency the NSA and the BND that is currently in focus is thought to have only concerned communications processed via satellites in areas of conflict in the Middle East. The information the spies received would have dealt with arms trading, not with detailed technological secrets.

"Not even the opposition is seriously claiming that there is evidence of the alleged industrial espionage by the BND and the NSA or that this is or was a focus of the collaboration," said Stephan Mayer, the domestic policy spokesperson for the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union parties' parliamentary group.

When asked whether his office had received any relevant evidence from industry, Mr. Maassen said that it was in constant contact with industry and enjoyed a trusting relationship with it. He said he had written to the trade associations DIHK and BDI, to ask for information should they obtain any knowledge of espionage activities by friendly states, and that his office would take action immediately if it received any response to this.

On the subject of whether the affair could undermine his efforts to establish closer cooperation with companies, Mr. Maassen said he did not believe the coverage was having a negative impact on its relationship of trust, which has been built up over many years. He said companies were well aware that the German intelligence services are a reliable partner in protection for industry, and added that next week he would be signing an agreement on cooperation with the German security industry.

The SPD, the Social Democratic Party that is junior partner in the governing coalition, is calling for services to be strengthened to make them less dependent on U.S. support. Mr. Maassen welcomed this proposal from an official political viewpoint, but emphasized that even strong, capable German services are not entirely self-sufficient. Even if both his own office and the BND were in a better position, he said that they would still need partners and would not be able to manage without other services if they want to protect Germany effectively against attacks.

The waters are not yet calm. Ulrich Grillo, the head of the Federation of German Industry (BDI), and Martin Wansleben, the managing director of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), are demanding clarification from the German government. Volker Wagner, chairman of the German Association for Security in Industry and Commerce (ASW), insists his members are not too concerned.


Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]