NSA's UK partner targets German companies, says report

A new report out of Germany cites the Edward Snowden documents in saying that the GCHQ spied on German Internet companies. It also offers more info on US monitoring of Germany's chancellor.

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A float displaying giant likenesses of President Barack Obama and Edward Snowden, in the traditional Rose Monday parade in Duesseldorf, Germany, earlier this month. Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

A new report based on the trove of NSA documents leaked to journalists last year by Edward Snowden says the agency's UK counterpart, the GCHQ, spied on German Internet firms, and it provides more information on the NSA's efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The report, published in German magazine Der Spiegel, quotes one of the documents as saying that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters sought "development of in-depth knowledge of key satellite IP service providers in Germany," with an eye toward, as the publication puts it, "developing wider knowledge of Internet traffic flowing through Germany."

Those companies included Stellar, which uses ground stations and leased satellite capacity to provide Net and phone service to remote locations such as refugee camps, oil-drilling platforms, and foreign offices of corporations and international organizations.

The GCHQ was not only interested in surveilling Net traffic, it also wanted to, Der Spiegel reports, "identify important customers of the German teleport providers, their technology suppliers as well as future technical trends in their business sector," and the intelligence outfit also targeted company employees, especially engineers, for monitoring.

The report also discusses the NSA's "automated machine-driven administration of collected information about high-value targets" and cites one of the Snowden documents as saying that "Nymrod," an automated name-recognition system, generated approximately 300 citations for Merkel.

The documents apparently also include a year-old report by the NSA's Special Sources Operations division -- tasked with securing access to fiber optic cables and other Net backbone structures -- that shows that on March 7, 2013, the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorized the NSA to monitor "Germany."

The Spiegel report again raises the question of whether the NSA and its partner agencies use their powers to conduct economic espionage (something these agencies deny). It's also potentially another smudge on the overseas reputation (and bottom line) of US companies, which some people worry are beholden to the NSA. And it contributes to pressure on US President Barack Obama to follow through on promises he made during his January 17 NSA reform speech.

In that speech, Obama said that "unless there is a compelling national security purpose -- [the US] will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies." He also said a then-newly issued presidential directive makes it clear that NSA programs should not be used for "indiscriminately reviewing the e-mails or phone calls of ordinary people," to "suppress criticism or dissent," or to "provide a competitive advantage to US companies, or US commercial sectors."

After a none-too-subtle game of semantics by the White House last October, regarding potential surveillance of Merkel, anonymous US officials told The Wall Street Journal that the US had, indeed, spied on the German leader but that the program had been stopped.

During a congressional hearing later that month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked about spying on the heads of foreign governments. He called such monitoring of "leadership intentions" a "hardy perennial" of the intelligence trade and said it was one of the first things he learned in intelligence school back in 1963. He also answered "absolutely" when asked if US allies had spied on the states.