Codename 'Apalachee': How America Spies on Europe and the UN
Part 2: 'Best Friends' at the NSA
Gray was on his way to Brussels as the new US ambassador to the EU. Before he left the country, he was invited by the corresponding NSA department to Fort Meade, where he was allowed to peek inside their treasure chest. The ambassador was "apprised of NSA's capabilities and limitations in collecting communications in Europe," the documents note.
Gray was presented with a selection of intercepted and bugged reports relating to diplomacy, business and foreign trade along with information on his future contacts at the EU. "I had no idea I would receive such detailed information," the ambassador said afterwards in amazement, according to NSA documents. That was "fabulous," he told them, adding: "You people at the NSA are becoming my new best friends."
The NSA has its own team stationed at the UN, with each of the specialists disguised as diplomats. A secret crew from Washington regularly comes to town to bolster the team's ranks before each session of the General Assembly.
But the Americans also eavesdrop wherever possible during the day-to-day -- and they have been particularly successful at it for quite some time, as the corresponding department proudly reported in June 2012. In a status report they wrote that they had gained "a new access to internal United Nations communication."
Spies Spying on the Spies
Furthermore, NSA technicians working for the Blarney program have managed to decrypt the UN's internal video teleconferencing (VTC) system. The combination of this new access to the UN and the cracked encryption code have led to "a dramatic improvement in VTC data quality and (the) ability to decrypt the VTC traffic," the NSA agents noted with great satisfaction: "This traffic is getting us internal UN VTCs (yay!)." Within just under three weeks, the number of decrypted communications increased from 12 to 458.
Occasionally this espionage verges on the absurd in a manner that would fit in perfectly with a John le Carré novel. According to an internal report, the NSA caught the Chinese spying on the UN in 2011. The NSA managed to penetrate their adversary's defenses and "tap into Chinese SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection," as it says in a document that describes how spies were spying on spies. Based on this source, the NSA has allegedly gained access to three reports on "high interest, high profile current events."
The internal NSA documents correspond to instructions from the State Department, which then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed off on in July 2009. With the 29-page report called "Reporting and Collection Needs: The United Nations," the State Department called on its diplomats to collect information on key players of the UN.
According to this document, the diplomats were asked to gather numbers for phones, mobiles, pagers and fax machines. They were called on to amass phone and email directories, credit card and frequent-flier customer numbers, duty rosters, passwords and even biometric data.
When SPIEGEL reported on the confidential cable back in 2010, the State Department tried to deflect the criticism by saying that it was merely helping out other agencies. In reality, though, as the NSA documents now clearly show, they served as the basis for various clandestine operations targeting the UN and other countries.
Experts on the UN have long suspected that the organization has become a hotbed of activity for various intelligence agencies. After leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Snooping on Partners
Short's statement, which sparked a vehement reaction at the time it was made, has now been confirmed for the first time by the NSA. According to an internal document, the intelligence results had a key influence on "American negotiating tactics at the UN" in connection with the Iraq War. Thanks to the intercepted conversations, the NSA was allegedly able to inform the US State Department and the American Ambassador to the UN with a high degree of certainty that the required majority had been secured before the vote was held on the corresponding UN resolution.
Snooping on negotiating partners is so rewarding that the NSA engages in this activity around the world, and not just on its home turf. There are secret eavesdropping posts in 80 US embassies and consulates around the world, internally referred to as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS) and jointly operated with the CIA.
The presence of these spying units ranks among the agency's best-guarded secrets. After all, they are politically precarious: There are very few cases in which their use has been authorized by the local host countries.
The small SCS teams (motto: "Vigilantly keeping watch around the world") intercept communications in their host countries. The required antennas and dishes are usually disguised. According to the documents seen by SPIEGEL, such "concealed collection systems" as they are internally referred to at the NSA, can be hidden behind "roof maintenance sheds" on embassy buildings. Highly classified technical surveillance operations in diplomatic missions such as embassies and consulates are referred to internally in the NSA under the codename "Stateroom."
The SCS teams are often disguised as diplomats and their actual mission is "not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff." According to the Snowden documents, such an SCS branch exists in Frankfurt, another one in Vienna. The existence of bugging units in embassies and consulates is to be kept secret under all circumstances, as it says in the material: If it were leaked, this would "cause serious harm to relations between the US and a foreign government."
'Thou Shalt Not Get Caught'
With few exceptions, this electronic eavesdropping not only contravenes the diplomatic code, but also international agreements. The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations of 1946, as well as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, long ago established that no espionage methods are to be used. What's more, the US and the UN signed an agreement in 1947 that rules out all undercover operations.
But even in UN circles a little bit of spying has always been viewed as a minor offense and, according to statements made by former government employees, the Americans have never paid much attention to the agreements. But this could change with the revelations of US spying on the EU. "The US has violated the 11th commandment of our profession," says a high-ranking US intelligence official: "Thou shalt not get caught."
The spying scandal has strained relations between the trans-Atlantic partners more than any other security-policy issue in recent history. The espionage is "absolutely unacceptable," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius inveighed after it became known that the French embassy in Washington was also on the surveillance list. "We cannot negotiate on a large trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest suspicion that our partners are spying on the offices of our chief negotiator," European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding angrily said.
Even a conservative politician like the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament in Brussels, Elmar Brok -- a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- spoke of an "enormous loss of trust." Other parliamentarians have threatened to pressure the US by suspending talks on a free trade agreement, and an EU delegation has traveled to Washington and confronted the Americans with the allegations.
The talks are scheduled to resume in September. The litmus test will be whether the American government is prepared to offer the EU a no-spy agreement similar to the one that is currently being negotiated with the German government -- and in which both contracting partners pledge not to spy on each other.
Such an agreement can of course also be violated, but it would at least offer the Europeans a modicum of protection. For the Americans, it would mean renouncing exclusive inside views of the EU. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration is prepared to take this step, despite the president's solemn statements that the surveillance focuses on counter-terrorism. A spokeswoman for the White House told SPIEGEL that the American government will respond to the allegations "via diplomatic channels," adding: "We have made it clear that we gather intelligence abroad just like any other nation."
In September, America's Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power will visit the EU offices. The American-European free trade agreement will be on the agenda -- but also the espionage affair.
If the European security experts do everything right, it could be that -- for the first time in a long time -- the Americans won't know what to expect.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: How America Spies on Europe and the UN
- Part 2: 'Best Friends' at the NSA
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles