by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
bnd, germany, journalism, surveillance

Leaked Documents Show German Intelligence Agency Spent Years Spying On Foreign And Domestic Journalists

from the no-oversight,-no-self-control dept

The tools are there to be abused. Anyone who doubts this aspect of intrusive surveillance programs is either a supporter or a beneficiary. Oversight might be in place and various checks and balances instituted, but the scope and breadth of these programs ensures -- at minimum -- collection of communications and data government surveillance agencies have no business looking at.

If someone's given a tool that allows them to snoop on almost anyone with impunity, it will eventually be abused. Case in point: everywhere and everything related to state-sponsored surveillance.

Spiegel, which has published several surveillance agency leaks (from Snowden and others), has obtained some more documents. The documents haven't been published, but the contents indicate that -- from 1999 on -- Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) has used its powers to snoop on journalists and their sources.

According to documents seen by SPIEGEL, the BND conducted surveillance on at least 50 [...] telephone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses belonging to journalists or newsrooms around the world in the years following 1999.

Included among them were more than a dozen connections belonging to the BBC, often to the offices of the international World Service. The documents indicate that the German intelligence agency didn't just tap into the phones of BBC correspondents in Afghanistan, but also targeted telephone and fax numbers at BBC headquarters in London.

A phone number belonging to the New York Times in Afghanistan was also on the BND list, as were several mobile and satellite numbers belonging to the news agency Reuters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The extent of the surveillance isn't detailed in the article. The writer refers to phones being "tapped" but also states the journalists' numbers were used as "selectors," which possibly means this was limited to data collection, rather than communications.

Not that it possibly being "just metadata" makes it any less of a violation. German law supposedly shelters journalists from domestic surveillance with protections roughly comparable to attorney-client privilege. But the reality of the situation proves the country's laws are only as strong as those enforcing them. Watching the watchers is something no country seems to do well, and Germany is no exception.

This wouldn't be the only time Germany's BND has targeted journalists. It may be the earliest (leaked) record of such behavior, but Spiegel has covered previous leaks in which journalists' emails were intercepted and other journalists were caught in the crossfire of BND's surveillance of allies' government agencies.

This news comes just as a three-year investigation into BND's tactics and surveillance programs wraps up. Not that anything will come of this investigation. During the investigation's running time, leaks continued to highlight inappropriate surveillance, even as Germany's legislators set about codifying BND's previously-illegal snooping. As long as surveillance powers continue to expand and agencies are given a free pass for previous bad behavior, citizens' rights will continue to be violated.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2017 @ 3:31am

    Why wouldn't the spies spy on their competitors, and who are often better at sniffing out scandals?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2017 @ 4:51am

    If you build it, they will abuse it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    stine, 1 Mar 2017 @ 5:03am


    Does STASI mean anything to you?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2017 @ 5:57am


    While the actions of the BND might be despicable and morally wrong on many levels, they did not actually spy on any domestic journalists (in this case, aparently they did in another in 2006).

    The linked article does not mention the BND directly targeting any german journalists (for the 2006 case they claim they were targetting the party the journalist was communicating with).

    The Spiegel article also quotes the head of the german chapter of Reporters without Borders, arguing that the protection against spying should apply to journalist worldwide. Making it pretty clear that the spying was legal this time, but still morally wrong.

    So horrible, awful and wrong? Yes!

    Domestic? No. (this time)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2017 @ 6:13am


    The Eternal game.

    There are multiple reasons for spying, and ALL of them a benefit to the country. It is expected, and getting into trouble over it is minimal. The only danger is against the agent who needs to be good enough to not get caught, or they might be killed or punished in other ways.

    We all know everyone is trying to infiltrate, learn, and influence other nations as much as they can afford to do so.

    But the message is clear, spy! spy! spy! but try to avoid being caught.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      081T7215398KSWD, 1 Mar 2017 @ 12:56pm

      Re: Spying...

      There is a difference between a country and a government.

      Mass surveillance of citizens would be questionable in a legitimate, representative democracy run by the best and brightest.

      In this world, it is unsustainable and offensive.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Median Wilfred, 1 Mar 2017 @ 6:45am

    Who's next? Quakers?

    Geez, spying on journalists? What's next, spying on citizens who organize openly and peacefully, like Quakers, or Mennonites?

    I'm not exactly shocked by this. Spying on people who openly organize or report seems to be the main purpose of government surveillance, "terrorism!" justifications notwithstanding.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2017 @ 9:54am

    All this surveillance can't end well

    Intelligence agencies are becoming beasts that are too powerful to control (if they aren't out of control already). Information is power and these agencies have a monopoly on information. The ability to tap into the internet backbones will have that effect. They have enough information to make ANYBODY disappear and if they don't have any dirt on someone it is easily fabricated. The ability is there, all you need is the will to do so. I don't care if they've never used this power in that way because it's the ability that terrifies me. This is what a police state looks like. Doesn't matter if they haven't used that power yet (and you're deluding yourself if you think they haven't).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2017 @ 10:17am

    Mr Cushing, bbc is not news. It is fake news. They self censor when told by government.

    Just another beauty.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 2 Mar 2017 @ 2:38am


      Tell me the name of one that doesn't. You may find that even Breitbart toes the line these days.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Cowardly Lion, 2 Mar 2017 @ 4:58am

      On pig fellatio, and other things

      I always thought that the BBC was more impartial than that. Blair's foolhardy invasion of Iraq brought much scorn and derision from the BBC. They tore his "dodgy dossier" and the "45 minutes from doom" to pieces. Without mercy. And Blair was supposed to be a media guru. Cameron didn't fare much better. Although they were a bit late, they did actually cover the pig fellatio saga. The jury's out on May.

      I'm quite glad the BBC is still going strong, and still largely independent, if only to keep Murdoch frothing with impotent rage...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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