Berlin put on back foot by German spying reports

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Daniel Aronssohn
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Berlin (AFP) - Long portrayed as a victim of snooping by allies, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government on Monday grappled with embarrassing reports of German spying on European firms on behalf of the United States.

The German chancellor's office was informed in 2008 during Merkel's first term of German involvement in US economic espionage but did not react, the Bild daily reported Monday, citing intelligence agency documents.

Hard on the heels of media reports last week, questions have now arisen about the oversight and management of Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency as well as its supervision at the highest political levels.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) sought to spy on businesses in Europe such as Airbus via the BND's monitoring station at Bad Aibling in the southern state of Bavaria, the mass circulation newspaper said.

Bild said it had seen two documents sent by the BND to the chancellery in Berlin in 2008 and 2010 to inform it of the NSA snooping.

Germany reacted with outrage at revelations in 2013 by fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden that the NSA was conducting massive Internet and phone data sweeps, including in Germany.

The revelations, which included claims the NSA tapped Merkel's mobile phone, strained ties between Washington and Berlin.

- 'With German help' -

The documents cited by Bild refer to NSA attempts to keep tabs on telephone numbers and email addresses at EADS, the aerospace and defence group now known as Airbus, and Eurocopter, which now goes by the name of Airbus Helicopters.

The government has so far indicated fault may lie with the organisation of the intelligence services.

"It was definitely known for years in the chancellery that the NSA tried, with German help, to monitor German companies," Bild quoted an unidentified source from the German parliamentary committee set up to shed light on NSA practices as saying.

"It is unlikely and would be highly unusual if the head of the chancellery would not have been informed about such an occurrence," the source added.

That post, which includes supervising the intelligence services, was held in 2008 by current Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a conservative ally of Merkel.

Opposition parties, who hold just 127 of the 631 MP seats in parliament, seized on the issue, with the ecologist Greens calling for heads to roll and the far-left Linke party demanding a federal inquiry for "treason".

- 'Deficits' -

Bild said, again citing an unnamed source from the German parliamentary committee on the NSA, that Germany apparently chose to close its eyes to the information to avoid upsetting its cooperation with the NSA, especially on counter-terrorism.

Last week German news weekly Spiegel reported, without revealing its sources, that the NSA spied on European companies for years with the help of German intelligence.

The American agency is believed to have provided the BND with mail addresses and mobile phone numbers which were then monitored by the Germans on behalf of the United States, Spiegel Online reported.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Berlin and Washington agreed to cooperate on the fight against terror but, Spiegel claimed, the NSA went on to spy on German and European firms as well as French authorities.

Questioned by reporters, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry said that Paris and Berlin were "in close contact" to clear up the matter.

Reacting to the Spiegel reports, Merkel's press team last week acknowledged in a written statement "technical and organisational deficits within the BND" without confirming the contents of the article.

On Monday, a government spokeswoman, Christiane Wirtz, told reporters that "changes in the organisation" of the German intelligence service would follow but dismissed talk of possible resignations.

Referring to Bild's claims, she said the chancellery had consulted documents in 2008 and 2010 but, without divulging their contents, she said they had revealed no anomalies at the time.

This information was passed on to the parliamentary committee on the NSA in autumn 2014, she said, adding "deficits" concerning German intelligence services only emerged later in the light of new documents.

Merkel's junior partners in government, the Social Democrats, have implicitly criticised the chancellery's oversight.

"Apparently it's the case that the BND leads a life of its own and one must end that," Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said late Sunday.