Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), which is equivalent to CIA and NSA combined in terms of mission, has been a major Western intelligence agency for decades, and a key partner of American spies. Some of the depths of this relationship were revealed in classified documents stolen by Edward Snowden and subsequently released by various media outlets in recent months. These have caused consternation in Germany and the service’s chief has recently made a rare public overture to shed more light on what the BND is doing and where it’s going.
As covered in a detailed article in the Berlin daily Die Welt, BND President Gerhard Schindler (no relation, in case you’re wondering) on September 13 spoke to a group of retired intelligence and security professionals, a first of its kind event in Germany, to address some of the issues about the service that have been raised in the media since the extent of German cooperation with U.S. and British spy agencies came to light this summer.
In the first place, Schindler noted, the BND henceforth will do less in terms of mission focus. In the future, the service will collect against fewer targets and countries and do a better job in fewer areas: “it’s better to deliver 100 percent in all the jobs we do rather than half in some of them,” as he observed.
The new BND will also be more dependent on partnering with other foreign intelligence agencies (what is termed liaison in the business). Although the BND has done an admirable job in Syria, where German intelligence has long had significant insights, other estimates about the Greater Middle East were less stellar. The service had missed the coming of the Arab Spring, Schindler conceded. The solution to this, he added, was better sharing with partners, and also inside the BND, where “working groups” across areas were being created to improve analysis of complex problems.
On the tricky matter of the BND’s relations with the U.S. National Security Agency, Schindler – who heretofore had little to say openly on the matter – stated that the service would become more transparent, to include more public and media outreach. It is up to the BND, not the public or the media, to remedy the lack of lay comprehension of what the service does. Moreover, he added, the service “obviously failed to explain to third parties the dimension of international cooperation in the daily intelligence routine over the past few years.” He welcomed stronger parliamentary oversight of the BND, terming this process “a balancing act … but there is no way to avoid it”
To meet the needs of the 21st century, the BND must improve its recruiting process, Schindler added, noting that competition from the private sector for top applicants is growing. It’s important to streamline and speed up the hiring and security vetting process, which at present can last over a year: “We will soon no longer be able to afford taking that much time.” The BND’s current workforce is about 6,500 and there is rising demand for skilled workers in IT and other technical areas, as well as languages. If the service does not improve the way people are hired and vetted, including how people’s lives are placed under a microscope, the struggle for talent will only become worse.
Some comments from this Schindler: These are themes that virtually all Western intelligence chiefs would mention as significant challenges. The BND is a major intelligence service but it, too, faces lean budgets ahead and all agencies will have to choose where they will cut back operations and analysis: “doing more with less” is a catchy slogan that bears little resemblance to reality, especially in espionage. The public welcoming of more oversight and transparency is a positive sign and something that more Western service chiefs should emulate. The challenges of cumbersome hiring and vetting processes is a nearly universal gripe among intelligence leadership, but the Snowden debacle shows the importance of that vetting process. Cutting that back will invite troubles that no intelligence service wishes to contemplate. Like so many things, it’s a question of balance.