Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND)
Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Federal Intelligence Service, serves to inform the German chancellor about policy and political decisions regarding foreign diplomacy and national security. Germany’s unhappy experience with National Socialism of the Nazis and communism of East Germany has led the country to adopt strong privacy protections, requiring the BND to operate with more constraints than many other intelligence services.
The BND, founded in 1956, was the offspring of the division of Germany after World War II.
The BND was the successor to an intelligence network known as the Gehlen Organization named after Reinhard Gehlen, a German military intelligence commander who fought against the Red Army. Displeased by his negative, but accurate, reports from the eastern front, Hitler fired him. Gehlen took an enormous cache of his organization’s reporting on the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies and turned himself and his files over to U.S. military intelligence.
In 1947, Gehlen started collaborating with the United States’ newly-created Central Intelligence Agency. When the CIA found it impossible to penetrate the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, Gehlen became the agency’s chief source of information about the communist world. In 1956 West Germany joined NATO and Gehlen returned to his native country. His organization became the nucleus of the BND and he became its first director.
Enemies: The Stasi
The BND faced a formidable adversary in communist East Germany, the Staatssicherheitsdienst, or State Security Service, commonly known as the Stasi. This chapter tells the story of the Stasi, one of the most remarkable, if not insidious, intelligence agencies of all time.
One of its main tasks was spying on East Germans, through a vast network of citizens turned informants. The Stasi’s Main Directorate for Reconnaissance carried out penetration operations against the BND and other West German targets. Led by spymaster Markus Wolf, this directorate gained a reputation as one of the world’s most effective intelligence agencies. Wolf’s success at planting spies in the BND ultimately forced Gehlen’s resignation in 1968.
When East and West Germany re-unified in 1990, the Stasi was abolished, and the BND remained as Germany’s foreign intelligence service.
Germany, an economic superpower haunted by history, has traditionally supported—and sometimes clashed—with the U.S. intelligence community.
BND works closely with both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The BND and NSA run a large surveillance base in the town of Bad Aibling southeast of Munich that captures telecommunications data from around the world.
According to documents made public by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA created a network called SIGINT Seniors in the 1980s that brought together 14 Western intelligence agencies, including the BND, to share signals intelligence. This network — sometimes referred to as the “14 Eyes” – collaborated to monitor communications during major European events, such as the Athens Olympics in 2004, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, and the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament.
After the September 11 attacks, the BND learned that al-Qaeda had organized a cell in Hamburg and that three of the pilots of the hijacked planes had lived there. The BND had monitored their apartment but detected no evidence of the occupants’ plans.
Rule of Law
The agency has been dogged by accusations of improper spying. In 2005 it was revealed the agency had been spying on German journalists since 1993. A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate, and BND was banned from such activity.
The BND spied on a long list of targets in Austria between 1999 and 2006, according to two credible Austrian newspapers. The targets allegedly included 2,000 landline and mobile telephone numbers, faxes and email addresses of ministries, international organizations, embassies and companies operating in Austria. Among the organizations reportedly targeted were the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), all based in Vienna. Germany refused to cooperate with investigators.
More recently, the BND has been tasked with examining Russia’s ties to far-right parties, including the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD). More generally, the BND assess that Russia will attempt to use European elections to “destabilize the West and exploit national problems in a targeted way.”
The BND is charged with protecting Germany’s computer infrastructure, which has faced persistent attacks from Russia-based hacking groups.
In 2015 the “Fancy Bear” hacker group, which has worked with Russian intelligence services in the past, penetrated the computer network of the German parliament and even the local constituency office of Prime Minister Angela Merkel. A BND investigation named a Russian suspect in the case. Merkel said the data breach undermined her diplomacy with Russia.
In March 2018 DPA news agency reported the hacking group known as Snake (and also “Turla” or “Uruburos”) gained access to the foreign ministry’s network via the German federal academy for public administration.
In April 2019 BND was called to investigate what Bild, a leading newsweekly, called “a huge hacker attack on politicians, celebrities and individuals.” Almost 1,000 well-known public figures, including journalists, actors, musicians and elected officials were victims of a data leak from their mobile phones. A 20 year-old man, living at home with his parents, was found responsible.