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16th Oct 2021

German spy chiefs say 'no' to EU intelligence service

  • Terrorist attacks, such as the one in Brussels in March 2016, renewed calls to create an EU intelligence service (Photo: Eric Maurice)

The EU does not need a joint intelligence service despite the heightened terrorist threat in Europe, German spy chiefs have said.

"Although I am a true friend of European integration, in my opinion, we do not need a European intelligence service, and we would not get one," Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, said on Thursday (5 October).

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  • Kahl wanted powers to be able to "shut down the source" of a foreign cyber-strike (Photo: The Preiser Project)

"Intelligence is better organised at the national level," he said.

Hans-Georg Massen, the head of Germany's domestic security service, the BfV, said: "I'm also against creating such an institution. If we did, we would create bureaucratic double-structures, both at the European and domestic level. This would lower our efficiency profoundly".

"I don't think that it [an EU service] is necessary", he added.

He noted that Germany already struggled with duplication by having 16 BfV branches, one for each region.

"This is federalism … I hardly need to describe the disadvantages", he said.

The spy chiefs spoke at the first-ever public hearing of the Bundestag's intelligence oversight committee in Berlin.

The EU foreign service in Brussels already has an intelligence-sharing office, called IntCen.

IntCen does not handle operational information or gather its own intelligence, but the wave of terrorist attacks that began in Paris in 2015 saw renewed calls for greater EU capabilities.

The BND's Kahl listed "the North Korean crisis, Russia, wars and conflicts worldwide, humanitarian disasters and migration flows", as Germany's main security challenges.

The BfV's Massen said "the biggest threat" was Islamist radicalism.

He said this was different to the political Islam of the 1980s, because Islamist radicals wanted "to spread terror in the truest sense of the word - to kill as many people as possible and, if possible, with a camera running and live".

Massen said there had been more than 30 successful terrorist attacks in Europe since 2015, seven of them in Germany.

He said Germany was home to 10,300 radical Muslims, 1,800 of whom were deemed to pose a potential terrorist threat, and 700 of whom posed an actual threat.

Hack back

The spy chiefs urged MPs to give them the powers to hack popular messaging services, such as Whatsapp, with Kahl saying he needed to know who was watching "decapitation videos" on their computers.

They also called for new powers to "hack back" foreign servers in counter-terrorism operations and in cyber-defence.

"It is important not to see the tension between data protection and protection against terrorism … dogmatically, but to rebalance them according to the security situation," Massen said.

He said he wanted the power to infect foreign computers with malware for surveillance purposes.

"In the real world, it would be like turning a foreign intelligence agent and getting them to work for us. Something like this should be possible in the cyber world too," he said.

"These are 'hack back' instruments, but they are below the threshold of destroying or incapacitating a foreign server," he said.

The BND's Kahl said he wanted to be able to "shut down the source of such an attack and not have to retreat" in the event of a foreign cyber-strike.

But Christof Gramm, the head of the German military counterintelligence service, the MAD, who also testified in the Bundestag on Thursday, warned that international law posed problems for the initiative.

"There are international boundaries. We're not just talking about national law," he said.

Russia's role

The parliament hearing came after the German elections on 24 September.

Massen and Kahl had previously warned that Russia was preparing to attack the vote by leaking material that it stole from the Bundestag in 2015.

That did not happen, but Massen said that "there was a Russian intervention, a disinformation campaign," in the German election, referring to a Russian media and social media campaign in support of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

He said Russia might have declined to leak the stolen material because it had decided that the "political costs were simply too high" in terms of Russian-German relations.

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