According to SPIEGEL research, United States intelligence agencies have not only targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, but they have also used the American Embassy in Berlin as a listening station. The revelations now pose a serious threat to German-American relations.
It’s a prime site, a diplomat’s dream. Is there any better location for an embassy than Berlin’s Pariser Platz? It’s just a few paces from here to the Reichstag. When the American ambassador steps out the door, he looks directly onto the Brandenburg Gate.
When the United States moved into the massive embassy building in 2008, it threw a huge party. Over 4,500 guests were invited. Former President George H. W. Bush cut the red-white-and-blue ribbon. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered warm words for the occasion. Since then, when the US ambassador receives high-ranking visitors, they often take a stroll out to the roof terrace, which offers a breathtaking view of the Reichstag and Tiergarten park. Even the Chancellery can be glimpsed. This is the political heart of the republic, where billion-euro budgets are negotiated, laws are formulated and soldiers are sent to war. It’s an ideal location for diplomats — and for spies.
Research by SPIEGEL reporters in Berlin and Washington, talks with intelligence officials and the evaluation of internal documents of the US’ National Security Agency and other information, most of which comes from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, lead to the conclusion that the US diplomatic mission in the German capital has not merely been promoting German-American friendship. On the contrary, it is a nest of espionage. From the roof of the embassy, a special unit of the CIA and NSA can apparently monitor a large part of cellphone communication in the government quarter. And there is evidence that agents based at Pariser Platz recently targeted the cellphone that Merkel uses the most.
The NSA spying scandal has thus reached a new level, becoming a serious threat to the trans-Atlantic partnership. The mere suspicion that one of Merkel’s cellphones was being monitored by the NSA has led in the past week to serious tensions between Berlin and Washington.
Hardly anything is as sensitive a subject to Merkel as the surveillance of her cellphone. It is her instrument of power. She uses it not only to lead her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but also to conduct a large portion of government business. Merkel uses the device so frequently that there was even debate earlier this year over whether her text-messaging activity should be archived as part of executive action.
‘That’s Just Not Done’
Merkel has often said — half in earnest, half in jest — that she operates under the assumption that her phone calls are being monitored. But she apparently had in mind countries like China and Russia, where data protection is not taken very seriously, and not Germany’s friends in Washington.
Last Wednesday Merkel placed a strongly worded phone call to US President Barack Obama. Sixty-two percent of Germans approve of her harsh reaction, according to a survey by polling institute YouGov. A quarter think it was too mild. In a gesture of displeasure usually reserved for rogue states, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle summoned the new US ambassador, John Emerson, for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry.
The NSA affair has shaken the certainties of German politics. Even Merkel’s CDU, long a loyal friend of Washington, is now openly questioning the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. At the Chancellery it’s now being said that if the US government doesn’t take greater pains to clarify the situation, certain conclusions will be drawn and talks over the agreement could potentially be put on hold.
“Spying between friends, that’s just not done,” said Merkel on Thursday at a European Union summit in Brussels. “Now trust has to be rebuilt.” But until recently it sounded as if the government had faith in its ally’s intelligence agencies.
In mid-August Merkel’s chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, offhandedly described the NSA scandal as over. German authorities offered none of their own findings — just a dry statement from the NSA leadership saying the agency adhered to all agreements between the countries.
Now it is not just Pofalla who stands disgraced, but Merkel as well. She looks like a head of government who only stands up to Obama when she herself is a target of the US intelligence services. The German website Der Postillon published a satirical version last Thursday of the statement given by Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert: “The chancellor considers it a slap in the face that she has most likely been monitored over the years just like some mangy resident of Germany.”
Merkel has nothing to fear domestically from the recent turn of affairs. The election is over, the conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats are already in official negotiations toward forming a new government. No one wants to poison the atmosphere with mutual accusation.
Nevertheless, Merkel must now answer the question of how much she is willing to tolerate from her American allies.
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The White House was under intense pressure yesterday to reveal the extent to which Barack Obama knew about US surveillance operations targeting the leaders of allied countries.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was reportedly spied on since 2002 from a secret listening post inside the US embassy in Berlin that monitors all mobile phone, satellite and wireless internet traffic in the German capital.
Der Spiegel claims the surveillance took place via a special antennae dubbed “Einstein” and concealed in a windowless room on the roof of the embassy adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag.
The White House refused to comment on that report – or others that emerged in Germany, raising questions about how much Barack Obama knew about the spying operation.
Caitlin Hayden, the White House national security council spokeswoman, said: “We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”
‘Special Collection Service’
Drawing on information provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the magazine reports that US intelligence operates 80 such listening posts around the world, dubbed “Special Collection Service”.
The magazine said the posts are operated jointly by the NSA and CIA, the US foreign intelligence service, in 80 locations worldwide. Two stations operate in Germany – Berlin and Frankfurt – and, in total, some 19 operate in Europe including Paris, Prague and Madrid. The US embassy in Dublin is not listed as a listening post.
“The SCS teams work mostly undercover in shielded areas of American embassies and consulates where, officially, they are accredited as diplomats and enjoy the related privileges,” the magazine writes. “From the protection of the embassy they can eavesdrop and look. They just are not allowed to be caught.”
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