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The NSA Spying Scandal in 2013 and Its Impacts on German-American Relations

Facharbeit (Schule) 2015 23 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Sonstiges


Table of contents

1 General information about the NSA

2 The NSA spying scandal in 2013
2.1 Historical considerations
2.1.1 Biographical aspects of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden
2.1.2 Summary of Snowden’s revelations
2.2 Legal aspects
2.2.1 The legal basis for American surveillance
2.2.2 Snowden’s violations of law
2.3 General deliberation: Surveillance and democracy
2.3.1 The harm of surveillance to a democratic state
2.3.2 Compatibility of surveillance and democracy in the future

3 The impacts on German-American relations
3.1 The BND as ‘the German NSA’
3.1.1 General information about the BND
3.1.2 Cooperation between the BND and the NSA
3.2 The effects of Snowden’s revelations in America and Germany
3.2.1 Reactions in the USA
3.2.2 Reactions in Germany
3.2.3 Changes in German-American relations

4 Snowden’s reflections one year later


1 General information about the NSA

‘No Such Agency’ - the public often jokes that this is what NSA stands for because even its existence was kept top secret by the American government for a few years.1 President Harry Truman founded the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952 after the USA had had success in creaking codes of the German and Japanese Army during World War II. The new agency was from then on responsible for decryption. Today, the two assignments of the NSA are Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance.2 Signals Intelligence, on the one hand, means the secret service has to supply the US government with “foreign intelligence [gathered] from communications and information systems”3, which can be helpful in preventing terrorism or in negotiations with other countries. Information Assurance, on the other hand, is the protection of America’s state secrets. Together these two assignments make Network Warfare possible. Therefore, the overall purpose of this agency is helping America to achieve its political goals.4 Consequently, it also strengthens America's role as the world police.

The public could only imagine how this secret service actually worked until Edward Snowden made several disclosures about measures of the NSA in 2013. These revelations provoked extensive debates on the whistle-blower5 himself, the programs of the NSA, their legal justification, Snowden’s violations of law, the compatibility of surveillance and democracy, and on how this scandal affects the German-American relations especially because the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) is involved in the global monitoring, too.

2 The NSA spying scandal in 2013

2.1 Historical considerations

2.1.1 Biographical aspects of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden

In 2009, the New York Times published an article about the intensification of secret sabotage against Iran by means of top secret information that were leaked among others by US officials. As a consequence, Edward Joseph Snowden expressed his enormous outrage on Ars Technica, an online platform dealing with technology news and information.6 This leads to the question how he could become the whistle-blower who triggered the biggest scandal about secret services in history also by sharing classified documents with the press four years later.

First of all, it is important to understand that Snowden was not an opponent of the US government from the beginning. In fact, he was born in 1983 in North Carolina as the son of a US coast guard officer. Consequently, one could generally say that his childhood was characterized by “Patriotismus und Pflichtgefühl”7. He stepped out of line for the first time when he was a teenager and dropped out of high school after being sick for four or five months. Even though Edward passed the General Education Development exam at a community college, he could neither find a place to study nor a job. Therefore, he spent a lot of time with his computer and became a very active member of Ars Technica,8 which made him see the Internet as “the most important invention in all human history”9.

Since Snowden still believed in the actions of his government, he started working as a security specialist at a University of Maryland research facility strongly connected to the secret services after a short military career in 2004. Although lacking in formal education, he gave proof of his ability to deal with computers. For this reason, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hired him in 2006 and dispatched him to Geneva one year later.10 There, his attitude towards the US administration changed drastically, which he explains in the following quotation:

Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world. I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.11

This change of mind might be due to the fact that a Swiss banker who did not want to leak information to the CIA, was simply tricked with a faked police report. Finally, Snowden decided to act, when he found out that the NSA could even spy on American citizens without judicial authorization. He became aware of that because as a system administrator, he had privileged access to the NSA networks while he was working as a contractor of the NSA in Tokyo. In order to gather files which could be leaked to the press, he moved to Hawaii and later started working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that offers management and technology consulting services and closely cooperates with the US government, as this job offered him better access to secret information.12

2.1.2 Summary of Snowdens revelations

After reporting sick at work, Edward Snowden traveled to Hong Kong and shared the copied files with the journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and another editor of The Guardian there. Together they started disclosing the leaked information to the public.13 This included the following issues:

One of the primary activities of the NSA is the collection of metadata, which can connect somebody to a terrorist group, for instance. This means it does not safe the actual content of a message, but the date and the duration of the conversation, together with the location of the interlocutors. As a result, secret services learn a lot about personal habits and the relationship between two individuals without wasting storage space for specific contents.14 The so called ‘Verizon Order’, for example, shows how the NSA receives these metadata. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decided with this order that the broadband and telecommunications company Verizon has to supply the NSA with all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ […] for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.15

In addition, this agency even gathers emails, search requests, and online chats with the programs PRISM and Upstream.16 According to slides prepared for internal briefings, Upstream, on the one hand, taps into fiber-optic cables and under PRISM, on the other hand, the NSA analysts have direct access to the servers of large US companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple.17 But these two programs can only be used if the chance that the target is not American is higher than fifty percent.18

Furthermore, Snowden’s documents also reveal information about the activities of intelligence agencies of other countries. Since most of the Internet traffic somehow passes the UK, the British equivalent to the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), for instance, collects a lot of data with the Tempora program, which operates similar to Upstream. Working closely together with the GCHQ, the NSA has access to these data, too.19 But the American secret services do not only cooperate with other countries, they also spy on them. As a significant example, one can mention the cell phone surveillance of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. An extract of a file from the NSA networks displays that Merkel’s phone is considered as a target since 2002.20

Another category of the whistle-blower’s disclosures shows that the NSA tries hard not to be stopped by encrypted data. According to an internal description of Project BULLRUN, the purpose of this program is “to defeat the encryption used in specific network communication technologies.”21 Even the encryption technologies which are advertised by many email providers are thus not safe from the NSA.

Having all these points considered, one can get a first impression of how the NSA tries to protect its country. The secret services do not only know with whom, for how long, and from where targets have contact via telephone, they can also monitor every action on the Internet. With these information, they can create a comprehensive personality profile of an individual. As a result, there is hardly any privacy left in the digital world, not even for the average American citizen. Edward Snowden disclosed a lot more secret programs, but they would go beyond the scope of this paper.

2.2 Legal aspects

2.2.1 The legal basis for American surveillance

The programs and actions of the NSA differ a lot in terms of their functioning and usage. Therefore, different laws have to be applied. The following paragraphs explain how most of the earlier mentioned measures are legitimized.

By means of section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the secret services can force private companies to supply them with data. This happened for example to Verizon. The law allows the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to

make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information [.]22

Domestic communications cannot be monitored if there are not any investigations concerning international terrorism, for instance.23 But in order to also justify the collection of purely American metadata, the NSA claims that this part of the law only had to be applied if it analyzes and uses the data, not if it only collects them. Nevertheless, it can be argued that section 215 actually only refers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and whether or not ‘any tangible things’ include metadata.24

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), on the other hand, is a law which allows the NSA, among other things, direct access to fiber-optic cables and telephone lines. It exists since 1978 and was widely revised after the attacks of September 9, 2001. From then on, a communication in which one foreigner is involved can easily be stored and analyzed. The NSA argues again that they would only collect the data of Americans and would sort them out afterward.25 Specifically, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act enables surveillance once data of a foreigner who is not in America flows through the USA.26 However, the procedure under this law “is very unusual”27. As a first step, the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General only have to hand in a certification which shows that a significant surveillance purpose is foreign intelligence and plans for targeting and minimization procedures at the FISA court. Although these plans have to describe how the monitoring and the usage of American data will be avoided, accidental collected data is not only tolerated, but can also be utilized for prosecution. A judge will then authorize a Section 702 order and the government is able to use it for Section 702 directives against companies. This law is therefore used to justify the PRISM and Upstream programs.28

2.2.2 Snowdens violations of law

Another legal aspect one need to consider while investigating the NSA spying scandal in 2013 is the fact that Edward Snowden violated the American law by revealing classified documents. After the whistle-blower applied for asylum in Russia, the Attorney General Eric Holder explained in a letter to his counterpart in Russia which crimes Snowden is guilty of and why Russia should not accept the asylum application. According to him Snowden violated Section 641, Section 793(d), and Section 798(a)(3) of Title 18 of the United States Code.29 These sections show that whoever embezzles […] any record […] of any […] agency [of the United States,]30 whoever, lawfully having possession of […] any document […] relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States […], willfully […] delivers […] the same to any person not entitled to receive it[, and]31 whoever knowingly and willfully […] furnishes […] to an unauthorized person […] any classified information […] concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States32 has committed a crime.


1 Cf. FIDLER, “Introduction”, 2015: p. 4.

2 Cf. NSA, ed., “Frequently Asked Questions About”, 2009: p. 1 (according to the downloaded version).

3 NSA, ed., “Frequently Asked Questions About”, 2009: p. 1 (according to the downloaded version).

4 Cf. NSA, ed., “Frequently Asked Questions About”, 2009: p. 2 (according to the downloaded version).

5 OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, ed., “Whistle-blower”, n.d.: p. 3 (according to the downloaded version): “(used especially in newspapers) a person who informs people in authority or the public that the company they work for is doing something wrong or illegal” (definition).

6 Cf. AUST, “Digitale Diktatur: Totalüberwachung, Datenmissbrauch”, 2014: pp. 83-84.

7 AUST, “Digitale Diktatur: Totalüberwachung, Datenmissbrauch”, 2014: p. 74; “patriotism and sense of duty” (translated by J. Spickenreither).

8 Cf. AUST, “Digitale Diktatur: Totalüberwachung, Datenmissbrauch”, 2014: pp. 74-76.

9 Edward Snowden quoted by HARDING, “How Edward Snowden Went”, 2014: p. 2 (according to the downloaded version).

10 Cf. AUST, “Digitale Diktatur: Totalüberwachung, Datenmissbrauch”, 2014: pp. 79-81.

11 HARDING, “How Edward Snowden Went”, 2014: p. 3 (according to the downloaded version).

12 Cf. AUST, “Digitale Diktatur: Totalüberwachung, Datenmissbrauch”, 2014: pp. 87-95.

13 Cf. ROSENBACH, “Der NSA-Komplex: Edward Snowden”, 2014: pp. 319-320.

14 Cf. SCHAAR, “Überwachung total - wie wir”, 2014: pp. 19-21.

15 GUARDIAN NEWS AND MEDIA, ed., “Verizon Forces to Hand”, 2013: p. 2.

16 Cf. AUST, “Digitale Diktatur: Totalüberwachung, Datenmissbrauch”, 2014: pp. 102-104.

17 Cf. GUARDIAN NEWS AND MEDIA, ed., “NSA Prism Program Slides”, 2013: p. 3.

18 Cf. GELLMAN, “U.S., British Intelligence Mining”, 2013: p. 4 (according to the downloaded version).

19 Cf. MACASKILL, “GCHQ Taps Fibre-optic Cables”, 2013: pp. 1-2 (according to the downloaded version).

20 Cf. DEMLING, “NSA-Überwachung: Merkels Handy Steht”, 2013.

21 GUARDIAN NEWS AND MEDIA, ed., “Project Bullrun - Classification Guide”, 2013: p. 1.

22 CORNELL UNIVERSITY, ed., “50 U.S. Code § 1861”, 2012: p. 1.

23 Cf. CORNELL UNIVERSITY, ed., “50 U.S. Code § 1861”, 2012: p. 1.

24 Cf. CATE, “Edward Snowden and the”, 2015: pp. 27-29.

25 Cf. HEUMANN, “Rechtsrahmen für geheimdienstliche Überwachung”, 2013: pp. 152-153.

26 Cf. STANFORD UNIVERSITY, ed., “Section 702 of the”, 2015: min. 00:34-00:52.

27 STANFORD UNIVERSITY, ed., “Section 702 of the”, 2015: min. 02:03-02:06.

28 Cf. STANFORD UNIVERSITY, ed., “Section 702 of the”, 2015: min. 02:11-06:27.

29 Cf. HOLDER, “Holder Letter to Russian”, 2013: p. 1.

30 CORNELL UNIVERSITY, ed., “18 U.S. Code § 641”, 2012.

31 CORNELL UNIVERSITY, ed., “18 U.S. Code § 793”, 2012: p. 1.

32 CORNELL UNIVERSITY, ed., “18 U.S. Code § 798”, 2012: p. 1.


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Ortenburg-Gymnasium Oberviechtach
America United States international relations Edward Snowden



Titel: The NSA Spying Scandal in 2013 and Its Impacts on German-American Relations