Edward Snowden

Germany backs down over number of terror attacks foiled by US programme

Germany backs down on earlier claims that the US surveillance programme - revealed by Edward Snowden - foiled several plots

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 6:00am

Germany's interior minister is backing off his earlier assertion that the US National Security Agency's monitoring of internet accounts prevented five terror attacks in Germany.

This raises questions about other claims concerning the value of the monitoring programmes revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Hans-Peter Friedrich made the assertion about the number of attacks the NSA programmes - which scoop up records from cellphone and internet accounts - had helped to avert after a brief visit to the United States earlier this month.

But last Tuesday, he told a German parliamentary panel: "It is relatively difficult to count the number of terror attacks that didn't occur." A day later, he was publicly referring to just two foiled attacks, at least one and possibly both of which appeared to have little to do with the NSA's surveillance programmes.

In Germany, the concern is that the NSA is capturing and storing as many as 500 million electronic communications each month, but Germans are getting little if anything back for what is seen as an immoral and illegal invasion of privacy.

Friedrich spent July 11-12 in the United States for meetings to gather information that would calm a building German angst over the spy scandal.

Instead of being reassured, however, opposition politicians and observers are now talking about the arrogance of the US application of "winner's power", and how traditionally strong ties between the two countries have been harmed by the scandal.

"German-American relations are at risk," said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a Green Party member of the intelligence oversight panel in the country's legislature, the Bundestag, dominated by Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. "The longer it takes to uncover the facts after this long silence, the more problematic it becomes."

Even as emotions build, the NSA plans for expanding a listening station in Germany were revealed last week, raising more questions.

Perhaps most troubling was how quickly the government backed down on the claims that the surveillance helped foil terror plots. Gisela Piltz, a Liberal Party member of the intelligence committee, said: "There is a clear discrepancy between the previously reported number of foiled terror attacks and the number we talked about [at a committee meeting]."

One of the cases, commonly known as the Sauerland cell plot, involved an alleged conspiracy in 2007 to detonate a series of car bombs in crowded places. News reports at the time mentioned an unnamed US intelligence official saying that cellphone calls by two German conspirators had been intercepted. But those calls were said to have been made when the Germans were leaving a terror camp in Pakistan, and not under NSA monitoring.

The other case, involving four men with al-Qaeda connections arrested in Dusseldorf while allegedly preparing to make a shrapnel bomb to detonate at an undecided location, also raised questions about the NSA's involvement.