Belgian, Dutch authorities to probe Germany over alleged snooping

Surveillance cameras overlook the building site of the headquarters of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin (Reuters / Tobias Schwarz)
Belgium and the Netherlands have each launched probes into whether the BND, Germany’s intelligence agency accused of helping the NSA carry out joint surveillance of Berlin's closest allies in Europe, had targeted its neighbors.

The investigations follow reports that Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, operating in tandem with the US National Security Agency, had an array of big shot targets in Europe, the French government, European Commission and Airbus Group among a long list.

"Following these revelations the Belgian security agency has started an investigation to see whether Belgian targets were in fact the subject of these alleged spying activities," a spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry said on Friday.

"If it should emerge that the reports of wide-scale eavesdropping by the German secret services are correct, Germany will have to provide an explanation," Belgium's Telecoms Minister Alexander de Croo said in a statement.

According to media reports, German and US intelligence agencies allegedly kept close tabs on Belgium by monitoring data passing through 15 cables, mostly operated by the national telecom giant Proximus.

An Austrian European MP from the Greens Party, Peter Pilz, said he had proof that Germany's giant Deutsche Telecom also cooperated with the BND spy agency.

"This is a strange alliance between Merkel and the Americans," he told AFP.

"German authorities should cooperate with their European partners and not with the NSA," Pilz said, adding that European politicians "have to change Germany's focus in terms of intelligence cooperation," in order to "bring them back to Europe."

READ MORE: ‘German intelligence dependent on NSA’ – Berlin’s spy chief

Last week, the German Intelligence Agency chief stated that Berlin is in fact dependent on the NSA because the US presence is key to protecting the country. Gerhard Schindler, the head of BND, laid the blame on his own agency for allowing the NSA to spy on European companies.

Schindler acknowledged that BND had made mistakes when handling requests from the NSA, but added that Germany would be a worse place without them.

“We are dependent on the NSA, not the other way round,” Der Spiegel quoted the spy chief as saying. “Without this cooperation we wouldn't be able to carry out our work,” he added.

Schindler has admitted that the German agency made a mistake by failing to check the list of search criteria or selectors (which included data such as names, IP addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses) that the NSA had asked it to use for surveillance activities. The searches were conducted from the BND’s facility in Bad Aibling (normally used to gather data coming from places such as Afghanistan or Somalia.) In April, based on the leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden, Der Spiegel reported that BND received thousands of selectors from the NSA to spy on targets, among which were European politicians and companies such as European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), Eurocopter, and the European aviation consortium Airbus.

Since early May, Berlin has dramatically reduced its cooperation with the NSA. It has demanded the US intelligence agency first file an official request explaining the need for the internet-based data from the Bad Aibling listening post in Bavaria, where 120 BND employees and some NSA technicians work, according to reports.

Although Paris said it still trusts its closest ally, Berlin, despite the latest espionage allegations, the claims added fuel to the fire in the debate about whether Angela Merkel was actually aware of the alleged joint spying.

READ MORE: Men in Black: Lawyers protest mass surveillance in Berlin (VIDEO)

According to the latest poll, one-third of Germans feel deceived by Merkel regarding allegations Germany’s spy agency assisted in NSA snooping, while more than half are still ready to stand by her.

The research, compiled by the Berlin pollster Forsa and released last week, also found that 52 percent of voters think the spying row is either “important or very important,” Reuters reported.

According to some media reports, before the 2013 elections in Germany, Merkel's aides appeared to have lied to the public about the prospects of a no-spy deal with Washington that never came to be fulfilled. The German Chancellor had to defend her government and the BND’s co-operation with the NSA.

Merkel’s cabinet members have been testifying before the parliamentary investigation committee, facing accusations that the BND acted against national interests. “Although this may not be so popular right now, that includes the fact that our intelligence services have to cooperate internationally, and will continue to cooperate, to protect the lives of 80 million Germans,” Merkel told reporters on May 18.