Clearly the BND scandal is a little bit bewildering and impenetrable. That’s mainly because it’s a Spiegel exclusive, which means all the actual information in this week’s massive cover story is buried somewhere in the middle after all the stuff about what kind of sofa Angela Merkel was sitting on 50 years ago when she first thought of a secret, or something. But if you haven’t had a chance to sift through all those German words, here’s the important thing:
The German government, and especially Merkel and her Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, are in the process of, as one opposition MP put it, “only admitting to what they can no longer deny” about the activities of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). So, two years ago, just after the first Edward Snowden revelations came out, Merkel could appear on TV in all her maddening self-assurance and say – when asked whether the NSA had spied on German companies – “The interior minister [who had just been to Washington] was told very clearly: there is no industrial espionage against German companies.” (Note the way she subtly slips to layers of responsibility between herself and important things happening around her.)
But, thanks to Der Spiegel, now we know that her office knew at least since 2010 that the NSA was spying on European firms, including major German companies. People in her office were also aware that the NSA was getting help from the BND.
So either Merkel was lying or the people who work for her don’t tell her what the hell they’re up to. Which is, you could say, even worse. Because that means that it doesn’t really matter what the people we elect do or know. They might swear an oath to protect your country’s national interests, and they may have theoretical oversight over the intelligence agencies and people who decide who they want to kill, but the spies will decide what they feel like doing, and now we know that since 2001, the BND has essentially been a sort of branch of the NSA that has to do whatever it is told to. The BND functions as a kind of franchise for the NSA. It’s like a branch of McDonald’s, but instead of burgers to feed customers it sucks data from customers to feed the clinically obese data centres in the USA. I think that analogy works.