Sunday, July 21, 2024

Official intelligence

By Wolfgang Schmidt

The Munich Security Conference (MSC) is a unique forum for debating international security policy. Every year, numerous heads of state and government come together to discuss openly and constructively the world’s most pressing security concerns.

A less well-known fact is that, since 2018, the MSC has also been bringing together heads of intelligence services for an exchange of ideas and for dialogue with decision-makers and government officials. At the MSC, intelligence is unequivocally seen as an inherent part of foreign and security policy – and intelligence services as key actors in our security architecture. It provides a perfect stage for candid and informal discussions, and the large number of intelligence heads present at this year’s conference is a great sign of appreciation for this unique forum of exchange.

The types of exchange and debate fostered at the MSC are key to advancing international cooperation. The past year has shown the immense value of this cooperation – between policymakers as well as intelligence services.

Prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, NATO, the European Union and the G7 showed great resolve to act in concert in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack on the Ukrainian people. Their determination to cooperate closely manifested itself both in unprecedented sanctions imposed against the Russian regime and in military as well as financial support for Ukraine.

The intelligence services, for their part, showed a new quality of exchange of information starting as early as November 2021. In the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, intelligence services repeatedly shared detailed information on Russia’s plans for attack and, by doing so, spoiled Putin’s attempts to spread lies to justify his actions.

Under these new circumstances, German intelligence services can build on sound cooperation at the international level, be it through bilateral cooperation, at the European level or at NATO. The Federal Intelligence Service (BND) alone, for example, is in contact with around 450 intelligence services in over 160 countries and values its cooperation with its partners world-wide.

As the war continues, sharing intelligence remains of crucial importance, in particular for detecting false flag operations that serve Russia’s interests. This partly even includes making information gathered by intelligence services, which is traditionally reserved for the eyes of key decision-makers only, available to the public.

More cooperation rather than less – this is an outcome few would have expected from a war waged at Europe’s eastern flank. Twelve months into Russia’s war against Ukraine, Putin has not managed to divide the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine. He assumed that the “collective West” and its democracies were weak, unstable and easily manipulated into distrusting their elected leaders. He underestimated the capability of democratic leaders to take responsibility for bold decisions and ensure their citizens’ support in the long run. Citizens in democracies might just prove to be more resilient – precisely because their leaders are expected to explain themselves in order to gain their support.

This concept of explaining decisions to a critical audience and tolerating dissent is, of course, very far from Putin’s own understanding of governing. A prominent member of the international intelligence community recently commented that in Russia, “it is not a career-enhancing moment to tell the president the truth.” This naturally leads to poor political decision-making as policy choices are based on a selection of facts deemed acceptable to President Putin.

Gaining his citizens’ support for his course and making sure people trust his decisions on their behalf has been one of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ most important tasks in the past year. He is aware of the responsibility he carries as citizens hope and expect that their chancellor keeps his nerve.

In democracies, democratic control is vital in order to ensure citizens’ trust in the decisions of their elected leaders. This must, of course, also hold true for the work of the intelligence services. Germany’s three federal intelligence services – the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV), the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) and the Military Counter-Intelligence Service (Militärischer Abschirmdienst, BAMAD) – are rooted firmly in a system of parliamentary and governmental control, executed by the Parliamentary Oversight Panel and other entities.

Having to justify their work vis-à-vis control bodies has significantly enhanced the quality and constitutional compliance of the intelligence services’ work. What is more, the oversight bodies also keep track of cross-service cooperation in order to prevent duplicate structures and to leverage synergies – thereby further encouraging effective burden-sharing and a joint approach of the services.

While democratic control of the German intelligence services guarantees public oversight of the services’ operations, trust in their capabilities and constitutional compliance can also be fostered by systematically reaching out to the broader intelligence community. To this end, Chancellor Scholz’ government committed to expanding cooperation with the science community, think tanks and other actors in the strategic community in its coalition agreement.

Just as important as ensuring quality and control of the intelligence services, however, is the ability of the services to present their insights to decision-makers. Formats at the interface of security authorities and decision-makers – such as the well-established weekly intelligence briefings between key actors from the security community and the heads of the three German intelligence services at the Federal Chancellery – serve this goal. At the same time, such formats ensure strategic cooperation between the three intelligence services.

To make this cooperation sustainable in nature, the intelligence services are further encouraged to conduct a joint threat assessment that is used as a basis for cross-service overall analyses. The resulting picture can then also serve as a basis for a renewed division of labor between the services.

The last year has brought fundamental changes that our government could not have foreseen when delivering our oath of office on Dec. 8, 2021. With less than 100 days in office and just three days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the German Bundestag, calling this moment in history a Zeitenwende, a watershed moment marking a turning point that fundamentally separates the before from the after.

For Germany, this meant departing from some long-standing habits and decade-old principles.

In his speech at the Bundestag, the chancellor announced a special fund of €100 billion for the armed forces, promised to end dependency on Russian gas and agreed to send weapons to a conflict zone – with every single one of these measures signifying a substantive shift in policy.

In the months that followed, the German government continued to send a strong message of support to the Ukrainian people. Germany showed that it was a reliable partner and willing to lead in lock-step with its allies in all areas, extending from sanctions against Russia, weapons deliveries and aid packages to Ukraine, to the intake of Ukrainian refugees. In its latest decision and after careful consideration, Germany agreed in January 2023 that “Leopard 2” main battle tanks will be sent to Ukraine.

At the same time, Germany decreased its reliance on Russian gas imports within months – from pre-war levels of 55 percent to 0. It diversified its energy imports, extended the use of renewable energy sources and rapidly sped up planning processes. In less than twelve months, Germany managed to build two LNG terminals, when it formerly had none. And Germany continues to accelerate the energy transformation that aims for the country to be net zero by 2045 – an undertaking that is all the more urgent in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The crisis of the past year has shown what Germany is capable of. And we know precisely what needs to be done for the country to come back stronger from this crisis. If anything, the Zeitenwende has left Germany more determined to foster trust in its international alliances, to reach out more decisively to other leaders and partners and to assume responsibility by becoming unwaveringly future-proof.


Wolfgang Schmidt the Federal Minister for Special Tasks, is also Head of the Federal Chancellery and Commissioner for the Federal Intelligence Services.

Security Strategy