The free press is not so free: German federal prosecutor opens treason investigation against journalists

Crazy things are afoot in Germany. And I don’t mean how the country’s international reputation is suffering because of the madness surrounding the German government’s handling of the situation with Greece. Or how an increasing number of bigoted morons keep setting fire to homes for asylum seekers. No, as if these developments weren’t worrying enough, the German federal prosecutor now seems to have decided to add another crazy plan to the recent plethora of bad decisions made by German federal agencies and the government.

The federal prosecutor, Harald Range – we have met him before; he’s is the guy who recently packed in his investigation into NSA spying on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone because he was unable to gather evidence that would stand up in court – is now investigating two German journalist for – wait for it – treason (“Landesverrat”, in German). The people standing accused of endangering Germany’s safety and security by publishing classified information (sound familiar?) are journalists Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister who run the blog Netzpolitik.org – a website concerned with all things political on the web, more specifically internet politics, data protection, freedom of information and digital rights issues. Netzpolitik.org, well-known and award-winning in Germany, is also very concerned with the NSA scandal and Germany’s lack of a proper investigation, as well as the clandestine dealings of the world’s spy agencies.

The accuser in this treason investigation against two of its journalists is, you may be unsurprised to discover, the chief of just such a spy agency: Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Bundesverfassungsschutz (BfV) – the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, aka Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. The move, as the Guardian reports, follows the publication by Netzpolitik.org of “articles about the BfV that appeared on the website on 25 February and 15 April,” which, the BfV chief complained, “had been based on leaked documents.”

According to the Guardian (quoting German public broadcaster ARD), one of the articles in question was about “how the BfV was seeking extra funding to increase its online surveillance, and another about plans to set up a special unit to monitor social media, both based on leaked confidential documents.”

Let us be clear here: Germany has been trying, less than vigorously and definitely with limited success, to investigate NSA (and more recently BND) spying ever since the publications based on the documents Edward Snowden leaked from the NSA started. I have commented a number of times on the NSA Investigatory Committee in the German Bundestag (parliament) and on how much of its “investigation” is so toothless that it borders on the farcical. Granted, there are MPs on the committee – most notably those representing the parliamentary opposition – who are trying their best. Yet, the obstruction by the German government that the committee’s efforts have met with is also in evidence.

And now we have a spy chief accusing the editors of a website of treason that is evidently working to shed some real light on the secret – and probably not always benevolent – practices of the spy agencies. Okay, so the documents in question were secret documents from the BfV, not the BND (Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) which has come under fire for potentially helping the NSA work against Germany’s best interests. However, the BfV seems embarassingly powerless to protect Germany from the kind of spying that has been revealed over the past two years. Discussion of mass surveillance and the questionable dealings of Germany’s intelligence agencies with agencies in other countries, most notably the NSA, although not as widespread as some might like, has never died down in Germany. And now, for the first time in over 50 years, journalists are being investigated for treason or perhaps for raising uncomfortable questions. Wondering what exactly is going on here and questioning the motives behind the move against Netzpolitik.org seems more than justified.

DIE ZEIT suggests that the BfV chief is growing a little desperate in the face of investigations into NSA/BND spying and other inquiries into the methods and effectiveness of German intelligence agencies. Whether a fear of further embarrassing revelations or a wish to hit out against those who work to expose wrongdoing and thereby make life uncomfortable for the agencies is the reason for the move against Netzpolitik.org or not, the federal prosecutor, rather than to play along, certainly would do better to investigate the intelligence agencies themselves – in Germany and outside of Germany – subject as they are to ineffective oversight while conducting mass surveillance of millions of innocent people, unsuspected of any wrongdoing. As to the BfV: perhaps the agency would be better served (and serve Germany better) investigating the, as SPIEGEL columnist Sascha Lobo calls them, “terrorists” that are currently setting fire to homes for asylum-seekers in Germany, rather than to go after people who are trying to inform the German public.

After all, the German constitution does feature a paragraph that protects the free press and free speech. Unsurprisingly, the investigation against Netzpolitik.org and its sources has variously been called an attack on the free press and an attempt at intimidating a people who have, among other things, been live-blogging comprehensively and successfully from NSA Investigatory Committee meetings – so successfully, in fact, that rumour has it that even BND chief Gerhard Schindler reads the blog to keep up to date on witness statements made during committee sessions.

If journalism, as the famous quote has it, “is printing what someone else does not want printed” and “everything else is public relations,” then this move by the BfV chief and the federal prosecutor not only amounts to an (albeit twisted) accolade for Netzpolitik.org as an organisation conducting the kind of vital journalism that challenges the status quo, informs the public of what they need to know and might just strike fear in the hearts of those officials trying to keep wrongdoing a secret. It also once again testifies to the lengths German federal agencies are willing to go to obstruct this kind of reporting – and to keep the German public in the dark.

As of today, it may seem that Range himself is catching on. The federal prosecutor has just announced that his investigation rests, pending an expert opinion he has commissioned on whether what the journalists in question are doing actually amounts to treason. However, considering that the intention of commissioning said opinion was part of the proceedings from the start, this seems to be little more than semantics to appease an outraged public. After all, Range will be very aware of one specific historical precedent: in 1962, accusations of treason led to charges against German weekly DER SPIEGEL and its editors and journalists (DER SPIEGEL is much involved in the NSA-Snowden-reporting these days). That, too, caused a public outcry, and eventually led to the resignation of the then Intelligence Minister Franz Josef Strauss. At the time, Friedrich Siegburg wrote in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ):

“Eine Freiheitsregung hat sich in unserem Leben bemerkbar gemacht. Sie ist bisher fast immer ausgeblieben, wenn man glaubte, auf sie hoffen zu dürfen. Aber nun ist sie zu spüren.”

Roughly translated: “A freedom movement is making itself heard in this country. Until now, whenever we believed we could hope for something like that, it remained absent. But we sense it now.”

In 21st century Germany, more than 52 years after DER SPIEGEL was exonerated and Strauss had to stand down, it seems that the free press is under attack once more, whether Range’s investigation “rests” for the time being or not. If the free press and German democracy will win out this time around remains to be seen. The initial reaction in Germany – one of indignation – gives grounds for hope. If more Germans finally start worrying about the state of democracy, civil rights and liberties in their country, then perhaps another “freedom movement”, which has so far remained absent in the wake of the Snowden and other mass surveillance revelations, will make itself known.

***

P.S.: If you understand German, you can take a look at the letter sent to Netzpolitik.org editors by the German federal prosecutor here.

Thanks but no thanks: Julian Assange has offered the German government to testify before its NSA-Inquiry

I thought I’d quickly update English-speaking readers on the subject of my most recent blog post.

DER SPIEGEL reports that Julian Assange has offered the German parliament’s NSA Inquiry Committee unredacted versions of the lists Wikileaks published a couple weeks ago which seem to prove that the NSA spied on key figures in various German governments (i.e. Merkel’s and several others before that) for years. Apparently, some of the phone numbers on the lists are still active targets and they reach as far as Chancellor Merkel’s inner circle.

Assange has also offered to meet with representatives of the committee in London (where he has been unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy for three years now) so he can testify on what he knows. Now, you would think that both the Inquiry Committee and the chancellery would be delighted by the offer, given that the government has tasked the committee with shedding some light on the true extent of NSA spying in Germany. Well, think again. Considering how obstructive the German government has been in its dealings with the NSA Committee since its inception last year, just how probable is it that Merkel et. al. will happily allow committee members to meet with Assange – one of the US government’s least favourite people – let alone have access to unredacted lists obtained from Wikileaks?

There was much talk a couple of weeks ago about lists of selectors that the NSA gave to Germany’s BND so that the BND could search its databases for those selectors (I commented on this here). Problem: the selectors didn’t exclusively target suspected terrorists. Looks like there was, amongst other things, some industrial espionage going on as well. In any case, it seems that some of those selectors ran counter to German interests. Obviously, the German NSA Committee is very interested in those lists. Unfortunately, the German government refuses to hand them over. They wanted to obtain the US government’s consent first. Which, obviously, the US government didn’t provide. Recently, the BND itself has come up with a rather ludicrous explanation for why it cannot release the lists or provide any information contained in them. German journalist Richard Gutjahr requested information from the BND on whether his name appeared on any of the lists. The BND refused, arguing that the lists belonged to the NSA and that therefore the BND wasn’t permitted to dispose of them as it pleased. It’s that kind of absurdity, which has been around pretty much since day one, which makes it very doubtful that the German government will kindly allow the NSA Committee to accept Julian Assange’s offer.

What makes this case all the more precarious is that the lists obtained by Wikileaks might contain proof that the NSA really did spy on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. It was only a few weeks ago that the German Attorney General closed his investigation into the tapping of Merkel’s phone, claiming that he had been unable to unearth any proof that would stand up in court. Therefore, if the chancellery, the government or the attorney general’s office were interested in getting to the bottom of the extent of NSA spying not only on the German government but also the German people, they would probably be very interested in what Wikileaks and Julian Assange have to offer. However, given that the hesitant unassertiveness of the German government in the face of past revelations of NSA mass spying even surprises the USA (true story), I guess we can safely guess just where this is going to go. I, for one, expect that Assange’s offer will be met with a (for once very assertive): “Thanks but no thanks.”

UPDATE: I was made aware on Twitter that it’s probably not clear enough from this post that the decision whether or not to act upon Assange’s invitation lies with the committee, not the government. Whether the committee will go against the government’s explicit wishes – should it make them known which it probably will – remains to be seen. Past evidence suggests that attempts to view the unredacted lists or speak to Assange may meet with some resistance.

Thanks but no thanks: NSA-Aufklärung mit Hilfe von Wikileaks

Julian Assange bietet Beweise in Sachen NSA-Aufklärung an. Die wahrscheinlichste Reaktion der BuReg: „Danke, aber… nö.“

Cool: Julian Assange hat dem NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss im Bundestag ungeschwärzte Listen angeboten, die die Überwachung deutscher Spitzenpolitiker durch die USA beweisen sollen. Das ist nett von ihm. Er hat außerdem die Abgeordneten des Ausschusses zu einem Plausch in die Ecuadorianische Botschaft in London eingeladen, wo er seit nunmehr drei Jahren festsitzt. Vielleicht ist ihm dort ein bisschen langweilig. Und außerdem ist er ja der Chefredakteur von Wikileaks und Sachen enthüllen gehört zu seiner Jobbeschreibung. Wikileaks hatte die besagten Listen bereits Anfang des Monats online gestellt. Man könnte meinen, der NSAUA und die BuReg (diese Glückspilze!) würden Luftsprünge machen, weil es so viele nette Whistleblower gibt, die alle gerne bei der Aufklärung des ganzen Schlamassels helfen möchten. Edward Snowden zum Beispiel. Man lässt ihn nur nicht.

Assange wird man vermutlich auch nicht lassen. Ich stelle mir etwa folgenden Dialog vor:

Julian Assange: „Dudes! I have some lists here that might be of interest to you! I am going to give them to you unredacted to help you with your investigation. I’m also more than happy to have a chat with you. Sadly, I am kind of house-bound at the moment. But you could come over. I have tea and biscuits.”

Notz, Ströbele, Renner, Hahn: “Thank you, Julian! That would be very nice!” (Sie fangen sofort an, eine Reise nach London zu planen).

BuReg (sich räuspernd): “Äh… die Listen gehören dem doch eigentlich gar nicht. Wir können doch nicht über geistiges Eigentum der USA… geheime Listen… werden wir da nicht zu Komplizen… Rechtsgutachten – war da nicht was zum Fall Snowden?“

Einige Minuten verstreichen, in denen die BuReg so tut, als würde sie sich das Ganze ernsthaft überlegen. Die Ausschussmitglieder der Grünen und Linken planen für alle Fälle schonmal eine Verfassungsklage.

BuReg (zu Assange): „Sänk ju for jur kaind offer, Dschulian. But ve kännot äksept it. Se USA vould not be very häppi if ve äkseptet stolen mäteriels.”

Wäre Pofalla nicht neuerdings bei der Bahn, könnte er die Sache damit für beendet erklären. Das obwohl die Ausspähung deutscher Regierender durch die USA – surprise, surprise! – weit über die 2013 an die Öffentlichkeit gelangte Ausspähung des Merkelphone hinausgeht, wegen der sich damals die Kanzlerin künstlich aufregte, was dann schlussendlich zu gar nichts führte. Generalbundesanwalt Range stelle erst kürzlich entsprechende Ermittlungen aus Mangel an gerichtsfesten Beweisen ein. Weil die USA halt so gar nicht helfen wollen. Dazu habe ich an anderer Stelle bereits genug gesagt. Und auch dazu, dass die BuReg die potenziell sehr beweiskräftige Liste mit NSA-Selektoren, von der vor kurzem überall die Rede war, nicht rausrücken will. Dafür gibt es jetzt übrigens auch eine Begründung, die im Kuddelmuddel um den neuen Griechenlanddeal wohl wenig Beachtung gefunden haben dürfte (wobei wohl auch ohne Griechenlandkrise Stürme der Entrüstung angesichts der Lächerlichkeit der Begründung kaum zu erwarten wären).

Netzpolitik berichtet:

Der Journalist Richard Gutjahr hatte beim Bundesnachrichtendienst um Auskunft verlangt, ob sein Name in der Liste der NSA-Selektoren ist, die der BND in seine Systeme eingepflegt hatte.“

Darauf der BND:

Es handelt sich um Material der NSA. Der Bundesnachrichtendienst kann nicht frei über dieses Material verfügen“.

Also: die Liste gehört uns nicht. Wir können damit nicht machen, was wir wollen. Ach so. Na dann. Genau genommen gehören die Ausspählisten Wikileaks und Julian Assange ja auch nicht. Zumal Assange auf der Guantanamo-Gästeliste der USA an prominenter Stelle stehen dürfte – zusammen mit Edward Snowden. (Guantanamo, das es – entgegen entsprechender Zusicherungen des amtierenden US-Präsidenten zu Beginn seiner ersten Amtszeit – immer noch gibt). Dass die BuReg es zulässt, dass so ein Assange sich mit dem NSA-Ausschuss zusammen tut und am Ende wirklich aufklärt…

Da macht es auch nichts, dass auf der Liste 56 Ziele stehen, darunter „hochrangige Beamte und Minister aus den Regierungen von Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder bis hin zu Angela Merkel“ oder, dass von den überwachten Nummern zwei Dutzend bis heute aktiv sind. Sie reichen bis in Merkels engsten Kreis. Ausspionieren unter Freunden und so. „Die Bundesregierung steht“, schrieb der Spiegel, nachdem Wikileaks die ersten Dokumente veröffentlicht hatte, „blöd da.“ Problem: offenbar nicht blöd genug. Oder eher: die BuReg ist sich weder für Blödheit, noch totale Lächerlichkeit zu schade. Weiß man ja. Statt wirklich auf Konfrontations- oder auch schlicht Aufklärungskurs zu gehen, zweifelt man sogar am eigenen Verstand Verständnis dessen, was man da vorliegen hat – und lässt wieder Range ran. Da auch hier von den USA wohl kaum Unterstützung zu erwarten ist, kann man sich denken, wohin das führt.

“Die Bundesregierung nimmt die neuesten Presseveröffentlichungen über Spähangriffe ernst”, sagte Regierungssprecher Steffen-„dazu kann ich nix sagen“-Seibert zu Beginn der neuen Vorwürfe. Also vielleicht doch Herrn Assange befragen? Dem NSAUA endlich die Akten und Listen vorlegen, nach denen er schon so lange fragt? Edward Snowden aussagen lassen? Wohl kaum. Über die – euphemistisch gesagt – “zögerliche” Reaktion der deutschen Regierung auf die NSA-Enthüllungen wundern sich laut Spiegel selbst die USA.

Ironisch? So sieht die Sache zumindest Vizekanzler Gabriel. Kleine Ironie am Rande: aus einem der von Wikileaks veröffentlichten Dokumente geht offenbar hervor, dass sich Frau Merkel und ihre persönliche Assistentin 2011 über die Griechenlandkrise austauschten. „Merkel äußerte sich dem Bericht zufolge skeptisch und unsicher darüber, mit welcher Maßnahme die Situation entschärft werden könnte“, schreibt der Spiegel. Nun schreiben wir das Jahr 2015, die Krise ist alles andere als entschärft und das Ansehen der deutschen Regierung im Ausland zunehmend beschädigt. Allein innerhalb Deutschlands scheint kein noch so absurdes, drakonisches, erbarmungsloses oder schlicht rückgratloses Verhalten am Ansehen der Kanzlerin kratzen zu können. Daher sind aus den neuen Vorwürfen gegen die NSA wohl kaum ernsthafte Konsequenzen zu erwarten.

“Die Zeit des Leugnens und Herausredens ist endgültig vorbei“, schreibt Christian Stöcker im Spiegel und weist auch gleich darauf hin, dass das jeweilige Tagesgeschrei „den eigentlichen Skandal“ immer wieder überdeckt. Aufklärung? Wieso sollte man damit jetzt anfangen? Bisher ist man mit Vertuschen und Verschleppen doch auch ganz gut gefahren. Oder, wie Heribert Prantl es in der Süddeutschen ausdrückt

Die deutschen Staatsgewalten scheinen entschlossen zu sein, sich von keiner Straftat und Grundrechtsverletzung der US-Behörden vom weiteren Nichtstun abhalten zu lassen.

Daher wird es sich die BuReg auch getrost die folgende Reaktion auf Julian Assanges Angebot leisten: „SSänk you, Mister Assange, but no ssänks.“

UPDATE: Hinweis via Twitter, dass der Ausschuss diese Entscheidungen trifft, nicht die BuReg. Ob der Ausschuss die ungeschwärzten Listen allerdings einsieht oder sich mit Assange trifft, wenn die BuReg massiv dagegen ist, ist meiner Ansicht nach dennoch fraglich – an dieser Stelle sei an das von der BuReg im vergangenen Jahr in Auftrag gegebene Rechtsgutachten erinnert.

UPDATE 2: Der Vergleich zur Snowden-Aussage dient vor allem der Veranschaulichung dessen, wie schwer es dem Ausschuss beizeiten gemacht wird, Zugang zu wichtigem Material oder Zeugen zu erhalten, wenn die BuReg dagegen ist. Anders als bei einer Aussage Snowdens in Deutschland muss die BuReg aber natürlich einer London-Reise der Ausschussmitglieder nicht zustimmen. Begeistert oder hilfsbereit dürfte sie sich kaum zeigen. Ob Aufklärung, wie Kai Biermann in der ZEIT schreibt, “mithilfe solcher Plattformen wie WikiLeaks und mithilfe der Medien” schlussendlich trotz der Obstruktion der BuReg umfassend betrieben werden kann, bleibt abzuwarten.

UPDATE3: Weiter oben neben den Namen der Mitglieder der Grünen-Fraktion die der Linken hinzugefügt.

Happy Birthday, Notes from Self!

This blog turned two three days ago and I have been so busy, I didn’t even quite notice. It all began in 2013 with this post in response to an open letter from MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to Edward Snowden which I thought was a bit daft.

Much has happened since then. Just today, the Guardian reports that the UK’s high court has overturned last year’s DRIP legislation which, for once, is good surveillance news.

This blog has been a lot quieter of late than it used to be, mostly because I have a lot of projects going on that take up time and attention. Notes from Self was a significant first step on the way to these projects and I fully intend to keep it going. So I will keep writing (albeit less frequently) about whatever captures my particular attention – usually things that annoy me.

Thank you for reading and keep watching this space!

P.S.: If you have a moment, do take a look at the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s campaign for Chelsea Manning’s defense fund. #SupportWhistleblowers