Report: NSA snooped on German tech firms

The National Security Agency and a British intelligence service spied on private German communications companies, according to documents provided by Edward Snowden to German magazine Der Spiegel

According to the report, the agencies targeted employees of leading German firms in a bid to learn about the technology behind key satellite Internet service providers.

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Targets of the snooping included IAGB, which provides communications technology to German defense forces, as well as competitors Stellar and Cetel.

The report could further strain the relationship between the U.S. and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, it was revealed that the U.S. had been tapping Merkel’s cell phone, earning an angry denouncement from the German leader.

The revelations are also sure to raise questions again about whether snooping by the NSA was done to benefit American corporate interests. The agency has vehemently denied industrial espionage or the theft of trade secrets to benefit American business interests, maintaining its spy efforts are focused solely on security matters.

At a press conference earlier this week in the Netherlands, President Obama said some of the reporting in Europe on American intelligence activities had been “pretty sensationalized.”

“What I’ve been very clear about is, is that there has to be a narrow purpose to it, not a broad-based purpose; but it’s rather based on a specific concern around terrorism or counter-proliferation, or human trafficking, or something that I think all of us would say has to be pursued,” Obama said.

“And so what I’ve tried to do then is to make sure that my intelligence teams are consulting very closely at each stage with their counterparts in other nations so that there’s greater transparency in terms of what exactly we’re doing, what we’re not doing.”

But the president also acknowledged that the issue could be “an irritant in the relationship between the countries.”

Preserving a good relationship with Merkel has taken new import since the Russian incursion into Ukraine. Berlin and Moscow share a close relationship, and the German chancellor is thought to have particular sway over Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

So far, Merkel has supported European sanctions against close allies of Putin and the threat of broader, sectoral sanctions against the Russian economy in response to further aggression, despite German public opinion rallying against tougher steps. Russian natural gas accounts for a large portion of the German energy portfolio, and additional sanctions could result in significant economic costs for the country.