Embassy Espionage: The NSA's Secret Spy Hub in Berlin
Part 2: 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 motion.
The document contains Merkel's cellphone number. An inquiry to her team revealed that it is the number the chancellor uses mainly to communicate with party members, ministers and confidants, often by text message. The number is, in the language of the NSA, a "Selector Value." The next two fields determine the format ("raw phone number") and the "Subscriber," identified as "GE Chancellor Merkel."
In the next field, labeled "Ropi," the NSA defines who is interested in the German chancellor: It is the department S2C32. "S" stands for "Signals Intelligence Directorate," the NSA umbrella term for signal reconnaissance. "2" is the agency's department for procurement and evaluation. C32 is the unit responsible for Europe, the "European States Branch." So the order apparently came down from Europe specialists in charge of signal reconnaissance.
The time stamp is noteworthy. The order was transferred to the "National Sigint Requirements List," the list of national intelligence targets, in 2002. 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.
Finally, the document defines the units tasked with implementing the order: the "Target Office of Primary Interest": "F666E." "F6" is the NSA's internal name for the global surveillance unit, the "Special Collection Service."
Thus, the NSA would have targeted Merkel's cellphone for more than a decade, first when she was just party chair, as well as later when she'd become chancellor. The record does not indicate what form of surveillance has taken place. Were all of her conversations recorded or just connection data? Were her movements also being recorded?
'Intelligence Target Number One'
Among the politically decisive questions is whether the spying was authorized from the top: from the US president. 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 White House and the US intelligence agencies periodically put together a list of priorities. Listed by country and theme, the result is a matrix of global surveillance: What are the intelligence targets in various countries? How important is this reconnaissance? The list is called the "National Intelligence Priorities Framework" and is "presidentially approved."
One category in this list is "Leadership Intentions," the goals and objectives of a country's political leadership. The intentions of China's leadership are of high interest to the US government. They are marked with a "1" on a scale of 1 to 5. Mexico and Brazil each receive a "3" in this category.
Germany appears on this list as well. The US intelligence agencies are mainly interested in the country's economic stability and foreign policy objectives (both "3"), as well as in its advanced weapons systems and a few other sub-items, all of which are marked "4." The "Leadership Intention" field is empty. So based on the list, it wouldn't appear that Merkel should be monitored.
Former NSA employee Thomas Drake does not see this as a contradiction. "After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Germany became intelligence target number one in Europe," he says. 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. "It has always been the NSA's motto to conduct as much surveillance as possible," he adds.
A Political Bomb
When SPIEGEL confronted the government on Oct. 10 with evidence that the chancellor's cellphone had been targeted, the German security apparatus became deeply unsettled.
The Chancellery ordered the country's foreign intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), to scrutinize the information. In 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.
Shortly afterwards, German security authorities got back to the Chancellery with a preliminary result: The numbers, dates and secret codes on the paper indicated the information was accurate. 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.
But then Rice called the Chancellery on Friday evening to explain that if reports began to circulate that Merkel's phone had been targeted, Washington would deny it -- or at least that is how the Germans understood the message. 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.
With this, both the US agencies and Berlin won themselves more time to come up with a battle plan for approaching the deep crisis of confidence between the two countries. And it was clearly already a crisis of confidence, because Berlin obviously doubted the statements coming from the US and hadn't called off its probe. And, as later became clear, there were also inquiries taking place in the US, despite the denial from Rice.
Over the weekend, the tide turned.
Rice contacted Heusgen once again, but this time her voice sounded less certain. She said that the possibility the chancellor's phone was under surveillance could only be ruled out currently and in the future. Heusgen asked for more details, but was put off. 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.
Going on the Offensive
This detail only served to intensify the catastrophe. 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 "dissipated."
On Tuesday morning Merkel decided to go on the offensive. She had seen how strongly French President François Hollande had reacted to allegations that US intelligence agencies had conducted widespread surveillance on French citizens. 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.
Heusgen made a preliminary call to Obama to let him know that Merkel planned to make some serious complaints, with which she would then go public. At stake was control over the political interpretation of one of the year's most explosive news stories.
Merkel spoke with Obama on Wednesday afternoon, calling him from her secure landline in her Chancellery office. Both spoke English. According to the Chancellery, the president said that he had known nothing of possible monitoring, otherwise he would have stopped it. Obama also expressed his deepest regrets and apologized.
Around 5:30 p.m. the same day, Merkel's chief of staff, Pofalla, informed two members of the Parliamentary Control Panel, the body in Germany's parliament charged with keeping tabs on the country's intelligence agencies, of what was going on. 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.
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