BERLIN, May 13 (Reuters) - Germany's domestic intelligence agency (BfV) has no evidence that the United States carried out industrial espionage in Europe, its chief said on Wednesday.
Allegations that Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency helped the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spy on European firms have put strains on Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and could damage relations with the United States.
Addressing a security conference in Berlin, BfV chief Hans-Georg Maassen warned against using every suspicion to discredit cooperation with Washington.
"To date we have no proof that American intelligence agencies are spying on top German companies," he said. "The Americans were, are and remain a very important partner for us."
Surveillance is an especially sensitive issue in Germany because of the extensive snooping by the Stasi secret police in old Communist East Germany and by the Gestapo in the Nazi era.
Revelations by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden about wide-ranging NSA espionage in Germany caused public outrage when they first surfaced a couple of years ago.
Maassen said he had asked business groups for indications of Western espionage in light of the Snowden revelations, but he had yet to receive any such information.
He added that the existence of "selectors" - IP addresses, search terms and names - for defence companies did not mean that they were targets of industrial espionage in all cases.
Both foreign and German intelligence agencies, he said, have an interest in certain defence equipment not being delivered to states like North Korea and that embargo regulations are kept.
Maassen warned that insiders posed a particular threat to their companies and said German firms were a target for Chinese and Russian intelligence agencies in particular.
He said these agencies were not solely interested in research findings but also in contact directories, customer services and marketing strategies.
Many employees carelessly give out information that they do not consider to be contentious such as the names or email addresses of their superiors, he said, and offenders are also interested in, for example, which tennis club the boss belongs to, what hobbies he has and whether he is married.
Maassen said there were also employees who deliberately pass information on to outsiders - not necessarily for money but also because they do not identify with their firm enough or are frustrated, angry or disappointed.
Personal problems, private crises or self-importance were also potential motives, he said. Maasen warned that insider sources who were deliberately placed in a company such as in the role of guest researchers were also a danger. (Reporting by Thorsten Severin; Writing by Caroline Copley and Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)