If you thought the PRISM debacle couldn’t get any more convoluted, then listen up. It turns out that there are two PRISM programs… or not, in which case the German government may be heading for a fall. It depends on who you believe: the newspaper Bild or the German government.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, the German federal elections are coming up and PRISM is a major issue. The opposition parties have demanded answers about what Angela Merkel’s administration knew about the Americans spying on German citizens en masse. The government is sticking to its line that only highly-targeted data-sharing takes place, in order to keep the public safe from terrorism, and that it never knew about the wider PRISM program.
On Wednesday Bild published a major scoop, based on a document that was apparently sent by NATO to all the regional commands in Afghanistan back in 2011. This document laid out instructions for cooperation under a program called PRISM, which involved monitoring emails and phone calls, with access regulated by the U.S. Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS). This document naturally made its way to the Germans, who are somewhat controversially deployed in Afghanistan and, as Bild framed it, this meant the German government is lying about its PRISM ignorance.
Not so, replied the government. Somewhat bizarrely, the administration claimed that the document was referring to a different PRISM program that was “not identical” to the NSA’s big project. Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said that – according to the BND, Germany’s NSA equivalent – this PRISM was a NATO/ISAF scheme, specific to the Afghanistan situation and not classified as secret. The Ministry of Defence chipped in with a denial that the Germans had access to this PRISM system anyway.
Then, late on Wednesday night, Bild hit back with a series of counterclaims. First off, the newspaper pointed out that JWICS is designed for transmitting the most highly classified material.
Regarding the claim that only U.S. personnel could access this NATO/ISAF PRISM, Bild quoted its anonymous American sources as saying all regional commands – Germans included – could request monitoring of a specific individual by asking “civilian and military U.S. personnel”, with the term “civilian” supposedly indicating spies. The paper also quoted these sources as saying the techniques employed across the two PRISMs were pretty darn similar.
So there we have it. If Bild got it right, Merkel is up for an electoral hammering and the rest of the world needs to wrap its head around the idea of PRISM being a collaborative scheme at the NATO level. However, if the German spy agencies are being truthful then there are two PRISMs that, by crazy coincidence, both deal in the interception of emails and phone calls. You choose.