Publication Date

April 14, 2015



How have democracies tried to balance the desire for personal privacy and the demand for state security? This timely and troubling question lies at the heart of a new lecture series, “Intelligence Services and Civil Liberties: Security and Privacy in Historical Perspective,” which the National History Center is co-sponsoring with the German Historical Institute. On April 2, Wolfgang Krieger, a leading German expert on the history of intelligence services, gave the first lecture in the series, an overview of “Parliamentary Oversight of Intelligence: The German Experience.” In a lively presentation laced with wry humor, Krieger provided a lucid account of the development of West Germany’s state intelligence apparatus, its evolution after German unification, and recent efforts by the parliament to oversee and regulate its activities.

Like their American counterparts, Germany’s intelligence agencies are an alphabet soup of acronyms. They were established soon after the Second World War under the oversight of the allied occupying powers, and the United States in particular continues to enjoy privileged access to their intelligence activities, though a 1990 treaty ended overt influence. Krieger did not comment directly on how this history may have informed Germans’ reaction to the recent revelations about the US National Security Agency spying on allies, but it surely heightened their sense of outrage. A German parliamentary commission is currently investigating the issue.

Krieger was relatively sanguine about German intelligence agencies and their counterparts in other democratic societies, insisting that they have never operated beyond the bounds of their political masters’ orders. However, this begs the question of whether those orders have been lawful. In the United States, a series of congressional investigations—most recently the one conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee—have shown that they often were not. In Germany, as Krieger noted, several scandals in recent decades have compelled its parliament to strengthen privacy laws and establish greater oversight of intelligence services. In both Germany and the United States, however, legislative oversight has been slow to develop and arguably inadequate in meeting its obligations.

Krieger concluded by stressing the transformative influence of the digital revolution, especially the Internet, on intelligence gathering and personal privacy. It poses new security threats and provides new intelligence tools. Finally, Krieger alluded to the scandal surrounding American snooping into Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone conversations. His last slide was a photo of a sober Merkel examining her cell phone and a smiling Obama standing in the background with earphones. The caption read: “Thank you for listening.”

The next lecture in the series “Intelligence Services and Civil Liberties: Security and Privacy in Historical Perspective” will take place on April 23, 2015, at 6:30 PM at the German Historical Institute. For more information, visit the German Historical Institute website.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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