The headquarters of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, in Cologne.

The headquarters of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, in Cologne. Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV)

Report: NSA Gave Germany Access to Powerful Internet Surveillance Tool

Germany's internal spy agency traded surveillance data on its citizens for access to XKeyscore, Die Zeit newspaper says.

BERLIN—Germany's national intelligence agency secretly traded information with the National Security Agency in return for gaining access to a powerful software surveillance program, according to a German newspaper report.

Germany's domestic spying agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution or Bundesverfassungsschutz, agreed to share targeted surveillance data on its citizens with the NSA in April 2013, according to a report in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

In exchange, the German intelligence agency was given access to use U.S. software known as XKeyscore, which the NSA once described in a training manual as its "widest-reaching" Internet surveillance system.

The disclosure comes at a time when relations between the United States and Germany have come under strain over revelations of unauthorized spying.

Reports of widespread spying on German citizens disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the NSA's tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone have angered Germans and fed calls for a rethinking of the country's relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies, which have staff and sophisticated listening posts in Germany.

The relationship has taken on a political dimension, as Merkel's domestic political opponents in Germany have used the reports to portray her as too accommodating to or the unwitting tool of U.S. interests. The latest disclosure is bound to add to the drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric in the German press.

Die Zeit said it had obtained confidential documents between the German and U.S. spying agencies outlining the controversial cooperation. It is unclear whether those documents were provided by Snowden.

In a signed memorandum on the deal seen by the paper, the German intelligence agency vowed "to the maximum extent possible [to] share all data relevant to the NSA's mission." Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, also signed on to the deal, the paper said.

The partnership appears to have been brokered with little external or political oversight, the newspaper wrote in a story published on its website.

Germany's domestic intelligence service passed confidential information along to the NSA without consulting other government agencies—a standard that circumvented parliamentary review and may have violated German law, Die Zeit reported.

"I knew nothing about such an exchange deal," Peter Schaar, who served as Germany's top data protection commissioner from 2003 to 2013, told the German paper. The data commissioner heads an independent agency with a small staff, and has little influence over executive decisionmaking.

XKeyscore, the software in question, is a spy tool that allows NSA analysts to query large databases of emails, browsing histories, online chats and webcam photos, the newspaper reported. Its existence was revealed in July 2013 by The Guardian, which published NSA documents leaked by Snowden that described the software as capable of collecting "nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet."

NSA officials have disputed that XKeyscore is capable of so broadly tracking digital content, and they have insisted that its use is appropriately restricted to lawful surveillance on foreign intelligence targets. The version provided to German officials is described as allowing them to analyze the Internet metadata of a domestic suspect under national security surveillance.

As part of the agreement, German authorities promised to "[u]tilize XKeyscore in a manner consistent with German law and in a manner reasonably likely not to result in the targeting of U.S. persons."

The deluge of spying secrets disclosed by Snowden has strained relations between the United States and Germany, a country sensitive to surveillance because of its history with the Stasi, the former East German secret police, and the Nazis, who used data to identify, sort out and murder more than 6 million Jews and others during World War II.

Recently, Merkel's government has come under pressure for appearing to be complicit in the NSA spying in Germany, a charge she and her advisers have denied.

But reports in local media this spring suggested that Germany's foreign intelligence agency had worked closely with the NSA to spy on other European nations.

Amid the allegations and denials, the German government last week charged one of its own spies with treason for allegedly sharing secrets with both the CIA and Russian intelligence officials. That came on the heels of treason charges filed and then dropped against two bloggers who published documents detailing German plans to expand surveillance of the social web.