translated from German by Kristen Allen and Charly Wilder
The NSA's Secret Spy Hub in Berlin
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.
SPIEGEL research, including evaluation of documents 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.
From the roof of the US Embassy in Berlin (pictured),
a special unit of the CIA and NSA known as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS)
can apparently monitor a large part of
cell phone communication in the government quarter.
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.
Last Wednesday the chancellor placed a strongly worded phone call
to US President Barack Obama.
Sixty-two percent of Germans approve of Merkel's 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 (pictured),
for a meeting at the Foreign Office.
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.
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.
The scandal unleashed by these latest revelations has shaken the certainties of German politics,
possibly endangering the long-anticipated trans-Atlantic free trade agreement.
But until recently it sounded as if the government had faith in the intelligence agencies of its ally.
In mid-August Chancellery Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla (pictured)
offhandedly described the NSA scandal as finished.
Now it is not just Pofalla who stands disgraced, but Merkel as well.
She appears like a head of government who only stands up to Obama
when she herself is a target of the US intelligence services.
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:
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.
Posing as Diplomats
A "top secret" classified NSA document from the year 2010 shows that a unit known as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS) is operational in Berlin, among other locations.
The secret list reveals that its agents are active worldwide in around 80 locations, 19 of which are in Europe - cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague and Geneva. The SCS maintains two bases in Germany, one in Berlin and another in Frankfurt. That alone is unusual. But in addition, both German bases are equipped at the highest level and staffed with active personnel.
The SCS teams predominantly work undercover in shielded areas of the American Embassy and Consulate, where they are officially accredited as diplomats and as such enjoy special privileges. Under diplomatic protection, they are able to look and listen unhindered. They just can't get caught.
Wiretapping from an embassy is illegal in nearly every country. But that is precisely the task of the SCS, as is evidenced by another secret document.
According to the document, the SCS operates its own sophisticated listening devices with which they can intercept virtually every popular method of communication: cellular signals, wireless networks and satellite communication.
The necessary equipment is usually installed on the upper floors of the embassy buildings or on rooftops where the technology is covered with screens or Potemkin-like* structures that protect it from prying eyes.
* Potemkin: word now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others.
That is apparently the case in Berlin, as well. SPIEGEL asked British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell to appraise the setup at the embassy.
In 1976, Campbell uncovered the existence of the British intelligence service GCHQ. In his so-called "The ECHELON Report - Signals intelligence and human rights" in 1999, he described for the European Parliament the existence of the global surveillance network of the same name.
Campbell refers to window-like indentations on the roof of the US Embassy.
They are not glazed but rather veneered with "dielectric" material and are painted to blend into the surrounding masonry. This material is permeable even by weak radio signals. The interception technology is located behind these radio-transparent screens, says Campbell.
The offices of SCS agents would most likely be located in the same windowless attic.
No Comment from the NSA
This would correspond to internal NSA documents seen by SPIEGEL.
They show, for example, an SCS office in another US embassy - a small windowless room full of cables with a work station of "signal processing racks" containing dozens of plug-in units for "signal analysis."
On Friday, author and NSA expert James Bamford also visited SPIEGEL's Berlin bureau, which is located on Pariser Platz diagonally opposite the US Embassy.
The Berlin-based security expert Andy Müller Maguhn was also consulted.
Apparently, SCS agents use the same technology all over the world.
They can intercept cellphone signals while simultaneously locating people of interest. One antenna system used by the SCS is known by the affable code name "Einstein."
Wiretapping from an embassy is illegal in nearly every country.
But documents show that is precisely the task of the SCS.
The unit can apparently intercept cell phone signals
while simultaneously locating people of interest.
This "top secret" NSA document shows what appears to be
an SCS antenna system with the code name "Einstein"
and its corresponding control device "Castanet."
When contacted by SPIEGEL, the NSA declined to comment on the matter. The SCS are careful to hide their technology, especially the large antennas on the roofs of embassies and consulates.
If the equipment is discovered, explains a "top secret" set of classified internal guidelines, it,
According to the documents, SCS units can also intercept microwave and millimeter-wave signals.
The SCS teams predominantly work undercover in shielded areas
of the American Embassy and Consulate, where they are
officially accredited as diplomats and as such enjoy special privileges.
Under diplomatic protection, they are able to look and listen unhindered.
They just can't get caught. Pictured here and in the next slide are extracts
from a secret NSA document with guidelines for surveillance
based out of diplomatic facilities.
The necessary equipment is usually installed
on the upper floors of the embassy buildings or on rooftops
where the technology is covered with screens or Potemkin-like structures
that protect it from prying eyes.
That is also apparently the case in Berlin.
Some programs, such as one entitled "Birdwatcher," deal primarily with encrypted communications in foreign countries and the search for potential access points. Birdwatcher is controlled directly from SCS headquarters in Maryland.
With the growing importance of the Internet, the work of the SCS has changed.
Some 80 branches offer "thousands of opportunities on the net" for web-based operations, according to an internal presentation. The organization is now able not only to intercept cellphone calls and satellite communication, but also to proceed against criminals or hackers.
From some embassies, the Americans have planted sensors in communications equipment of the respective host countries that are triggered by selected terms.
This "top secret" NSA document outlines the SCS unit's capabilities.
Another secret list seen by SPIEGEL reveals that
its agents are active worldwide in around 80 locations,
19 of which are in Europe - cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague and Geneva.
The SCS maintains two bases in Germany, one in Berlin and another in Frankfurt.
That alone is unusual.
But in addition, both German bases are equipped at
the highest level and staffed with active personnel.
How the Scandal Began
There are strong indications that it was the SCS that targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.
This is suggested by a document that apparently
comes from an NSA database in which the agency records its targets. This
document, which SPIEGEL has seen, is what set the cellphone scandal in
The next two fields determine the format ("raw
phone number") and the "Subscriber," identified as "GE Chancellor Merkel."
So the order apparently came down from Europe
specialists in charge of signal reconnaissance.
That was the year Germany held closely watched parliamentary elections and Merkel battled Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria's Christian Social Union to become the conservatives' chancellor candidate. It was also the year the Iraq crisis began heating up.
The document also lists status: "A" for active.
This status was apparently valid a few weeks
before President Obama's Berlin visit in June 2013.
"F6" is the NSA's internal name for the global
surveillance unit, the "Special Collection Service."
Were all of her conversations recorded or just
connection data? Were her movements also being recorded?
If the data is accurate, the operation was authorized under former President George W. Bush and his NSA chief, Michael Hayden. But it would have had to be repeatedly approved, including after Obama took office and up to the present time.
Is it conceivable that the NSA made the German
chancellor a surveillance target without the president's knowledge?
The list is called the "National
Intelligence Priorities Framework" and is "presidentially approved."
based on the list, it wouldn't appear that Merkel should be monitored.
The US government did not trust Germany, because some of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots had lived in Hamburg.
Evidence suggests that the NSA recorded Merkel once and then became intoxicated with success, says Drake.
parallel, Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's foreign policy adviser, also contacted
his US counterpart, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, to tell her about SPIEGEL's research, which had been summarized on a single sheet of paper.
Rice said she would look into it.
It was probably some kind of form from an intelligence agency department requesting surveillance on the chancellor's cellphone, they said.
At this point, a sense of nervousness began to grow at
government headquarters. It was clear to everyone that if the Americans were
monitoring Merkel's phone, it would be a political bomb.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney assured
his counterpart, Merkel's spokesperson Steffen Seibert, of the same thing.
The message was passed on to SPIEGEL late that evening without comment, at
which point editors decided to continue investigating.
The chief adviser to the president on Europe, Karen Donfried, and the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia at the US State Department, Victoria Nuland, would provide further information midweek, he was told.
By this time it was clear to the Chancellery
that if Obama's top security adviser no longer felt comfortable ruling out
possible surveillance, this amounted to confirmation of their suspicions.
Not only had supposed friends monitored the chancellor's cellphone, which was bad enough on its own, but leaders in Berlin were also left looking like a group of amateurs. They had believed the assurances made this summer by Obama, who downplayed the notion of spying in Germany on a visit to Berlin.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich
had even gone so far as to say at the time that Germany's concerns had
Hollande called Obama immediately to air his anger. Merkel now
wanted to speak with Obama personally too - before her planned meeting with
Hollande at the upcoming EU summit in Brussels.
Obama also expressed his deepest regrets and
At the same time, the administration went public with the matter. It contacted SPIEGEL first with a statement containing Merkel's criticism of possible spying on her cellphone.
Her spokesman Seibert called it a "grave breach of trust" - a choice of phrase seen as the highest level of verbal escalation among allied diplomats.
The scandal revives an old question: Are the German security agencies too trusting of the Americans?
Until now, German
agencies have typically concerned themselves with China and Russia in their
counterintelligence work, for which the domestic intelligence agency, the
Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV), is responsible.
The main question at
the time came down to whether monitoring allies should be allowed.
In fact, it relied
primarily on the assurance from the US that its intentions were good.
already more than 100 employees at the BFV responsible for
counterintelligence, but officials are hoping to see this double.
There too, officials have
been able to do nothing more than ask questions of the Americans when such
sensitive issues have come up in recent months.
Hillary Clinton convinced him to change his mind, he did so without
consulting his allies. Berlin saw this as evidence of his fickleness and
disregard for their concerns.
Meanwhile, the Americans have been annoyed for years that Germany
isn't willing to do more to boost the world economy.
Since the latest revelations came out, some 58 percent of Germans say they support breaking off ongoing talks, while just 28 percent are against it.
Outgoing Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has used the scandal as an excuse to appeal to the conscience of her counterpart in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder.
French President Hollande was the
first to bring it up at dinner, saying that while he didn't want to demonize
the intelligence agencies, the Americans had so blatantly broken the law on
millions of counts that he couldn't imagine how things could go on this way.
But soon doubts emerged:
British Prime Minister David Cameron pointed out how many terror attacks had been prevented because of spying capabilities.
Then it was asked whether it has
been proven that Obama even knows what his agencies are doing. Suddenly,
mutual understanding seemed to waft through the group.
The interruption was effective.
After nearly three hours, the EU
member states agreed on a statement that can be read as clear disapproval of
The German side already announced its intention to sign on to
this no-spying pact during the summer, but the US government has so far
shown little inclination to seriously engage with the topic.
Only for very delicate conversations did she switch to a secure line.