Why you should care

Forget the Stasi, if you can. German spymaster Gerhard Schindler is dragging his reluctant countrymen into a more dominant role on the world stage. 

He’s something like Germany’s Agent 001: Gerhard Schindler, 61 years old, parachutist, lieutenant colonel in the reserve, anti-terror specialist. Years as a top official in the German Ministry of the Interior, responsible for internal security. An edgy character, tanned, not particularly tall, bald, firm handshake, intense gaze.

For about three years, Schindler has presided over the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), the German spy agency responsible for foreign intelligence. His position has taken on critical importance. Germany is becoming Europe’s dominant economic and political player, Russia is moving aggressively against its eastern neighbors and the Middle East is in turmoil. Schindler wants an agency befitting Germany’s position.

But he faces a skeptical public that remembers too well the abuses of the Nazi Gestapo and East German Stasi, which used intelligence against Germans. Germans were outraged last year to learn not just that the U.S. National Security Agency was spying on German citizens, but also that Schindler’s BND shares intelligence with the NSA.

You can believe me, our intelligence is good!

BND resembles the CIA and the NSA rolled into one, though it’s much smaller — maybe less than a tenth the size America’s behemoth spying apparatus — with just 6,500 employees under Schindler’s command. (NSA and CIA employment is classified.) And he’s got a mission: to turn BND into more of a spy agency that collects information instead of just sitting in comfortable offices analyzing what happens to come in.

“You can believe me, our intelligence is good!” said Schindler at the end of July in Munich, where he made a rare public speech. Whether the BND knows as much as its boss claims is hard to say, though. The agency doesn’t publicize its successes … or failures.

Schindler wants to mold the BND into his own image, at least as he sees it — as a man of action. “We have to be the first in and the last out,” he says. Shortly after being appointed president, Schindler announced: “We have to further improve and expand upon the good operative abilities.” He wanted his people to take “well-calculated risks” more often. This was followed by a statement that riled the public. “Here, too, the following applies: No risk, no fun.”

High-risk spy operations are not what the German public wanted to hear about. In another European country, such a flippant remark would probably have been ignored. Germany is different, thanks to its terrible history of abusive spying. Germans reacted strongly to Edward Snowden’s revelations last year that the U.S. National Security Agency had been scooping up the phone and email traffic of German citizens, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s.

Do more: This could well be Schindler’s motto. The 11th boss in the history of the BND manages his house differently from his predecessors. Somehow faster, and also more demanding. Schindler is no diplomat. He relishes being called a “tough character.” His direct predecessor in office, Social Democrat Ernst Uhrlau, would have loved to transform the BND into a large think tank, an institute for clever strategic analyses with a small connected agent department. At least that is what those familiar with internal activities report.

Attempts to achieve more acceptance for the BND have met with only a modest degree of success.

Schindler’s people manage sources abroad, tap telephones in crisis areas — Afghanistan, Syria, certainly Russia. They buy information, read Internet messages in all languages of the world, analyze satellite images. Everything they can get their hands on is then checked, evaluated and compiled at headquarters into about 300 reports per month. Dossiers marked “top secret” go to the German Armed Forces, Parliament, Ministries and, last but not least, the Federal Chancellery of Angela Merkel, to which the BND is the only service to directly report.

To shore up the BND’s public image and convince the public its work is needed, Schindler has launched a transparency initiative. A commission of independent historians is looking into the past of the service, which recently even waived a little bit of secrecy. Six previously camouflaged field offices in Germany, in which foreign radio traffic is intercepted, have since hoisted the official sign, “Federal Intelligence Service.” Until it was renamed, the BND had concealed the listening posts as “Army International Communication Office” or “Ionosphere Institute.”

But attempts to ingratiate the BND among Germans have met only modest success. Ever since the Snowden revelations of the extent of NSA global surveillance and spying practices last year, the German foreign intelligence service has constantly come under fire from the media. Schindler is accused of collaborating with the U.S. service, whose acronym some Germans disparage as “New Stasi of America.” Even serious journalists are criticizing the head of the intelligence service for defending the cooperation with the NSA as necessary.

Their often-derisive tone angers Schindler. Speaking in Munich a few weeks ago, he referred to a newspaper headline that challenged the exchange of data between the BND and the NSA: “Is the BND allowed to do this?” the headline asked. Schindler erupted: “Of course the BND is allowed to do this! If we take our legal mandate seriously, we absolutely must do this — because that’s the only way that international cooperation will work.”

Of course, Schindler’s service depends on the much larger American spy operations to supply information. And perhaps offers a few morsels in return.

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