Codename 'Apalachee': How America†Spies on Europe and the UN

By Laura Poitras, and Holger Stark

President Obama promised that NSA surveillance activities were aimed exclusively at preventing terrorist attacks. But secret documents from the intelligence agency show that the Americans spy on Europe, the UN and other countries.

The European Union building on New York's Third Avenue is an office tower with a glittering facade and an impressive view of the East River. Chris Matthews, the press officer for the EU delegation to the United Nations, opens the ambassadors' room on the 31st floor, gestures toward a long conference table and says: "This is where all ambassadors from our 28 members meet every Tuesday at 9 a.m." It is the place where Europe seeks to forge a common policy on the UN.

To mark the official opening of the delegation's new offices in September 2012, EU Commission President Josť Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy flew in from Brussels, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was on hand as guest of honor. For "old" Europe -- which finances over one-third of the regular UN budget -- this was a confirmation of its geopolitical importance.

For the National Security Agency (NSA), America's powerful intelligence organization, the move was above all a technical challenge. A new office means freshly painted walls, untouched wiring and newly installed computer networks -- in other words, loads of work for the agents. While the Europeans were still getting used to their glittering new offices, NSA staff had already acquired the building's floor plans. The drawings completed by New York real estate company Tishman Speyer show precisely to scale how the offices are laid out. Intelligence agents made enlarged copies of the areas where the data servers are located. At the NSA, the European mission near the East River is referred to by the codename "Apalachee".

The floor plans are part of the NSA's internal documents relating to its operations targeting the EU. They come from whistleblower Edward Snowden, and SPIEGEL has been able to view them. For the NSA, they formed the basis for an intelligence-gathering operation -- but for US President Barack Obama they have now become a political problem.

Just over two weeks ago, Obama made a promise to the world. "The main thing I want to emphasize is that I don't have an interest and the people at the NSA don't have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that (...) we can prevent a terrorist attack," Obama said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House on August 9. He said the sole purpose of the program was to "get information ahead of time (...) so we are able to carry out that critical task," adding: "We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that." Afterward, the president flew to the Atlantic island of Martha's Vineyard for his summer vacation.

Wide Range of New Surveillance Programs

Obama's appearance before the press was an attempt to morally justify the work of the intelligence agencies; to declare it as a type of emergency defense. His message was clear: Intelligence is only gathered because there is terror -- and anything that saves people's lives can't be bad. Ever since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this logic has been the basis for a wide range of new surveillance programs.

With his statement delivered in the White House briefing room, Obama hoped to take the pressure off, primarily on the domestic political front. In Washington the president is currently facing opposition from an unusual alliance of left-wing Democrats and libertarian conservatives. They are supported by veteran politicians like Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the architects of the Patriot Act, which was used to massively expand surveillance in the wake of 9/11. On July 24, a bill that would have curtailed the power of the NSA was only narrowly defeated by 217 to 205 votes in the House of Representatives.

Even stalwart Obama supporters like Democrat Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House of Representatives, are now calling into question the work of the intelligence agency. Pelosi says that what she reads in the newspapers is "disturbing." It wasn't until late last week that news broke that the NSA had illegally collected tens of thousands of emails over a number of years.

Obama's public appearance was aimed at reassuring his critics. At the same time, he made a commitment. He gave assurances that the NSA is a clean agency that isn't involved in any dirty work. Obama has given his word on this matter. The only problem is that, if internal NSA documents are to be believed, it isn't true.

The classified documents, which SPIEGEL has seen, demonstrate how systematically the Americans target other countries and institutions like the EU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and the UN. They show how the NSA infiltrated the Europeans' internal computer network between New York and Washington, used US embassies abroad to intercept communications and eavesdropped on video conferences of UN diplomats. The surveillance is intensive and well-organized -- and it has little or nothing to do with counter-terrorism.

Targeting Foreign Governments

In an internal presentation, the NSA sums up its vision, which is both global and frighteningly ambitious: "information superiority." To achieve this worldwide dominance, the intelligence agency has launched diverse programs with names like "Dancingoasis," "Oakstar" and "Prism." Some of them aim to prevent terrorist attacks, while others target things like arms deliveries, drug trafficking and organized crime. But there are other programs, like "Blarney" and "Rampart-T," that serve a different purpose: that of traditional espionage targeting foreign governments.

Blarney has existed since the 1970s and it falls under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, at least according to the NSA documents, which state that it is based on the cooperation of at least one US telecommunications company that provides services to the agency. The NSA describes the program's main targets as "diplomatic establishment, counter-terrorism, foreign government and economic." These documents also say that Blarney is one of the "top sources" for the President's Daily Brief, a top-secret document which briefs the US president every morning on intelligence matters. Some 11,000 pieces of information reportedly come from Blarney every year.

No less explosive is the program dubbed "Rampart-T" by the NSA and which, by the agency's own accounts, has been running since 1991. It has to do with "penetration of hard targets at or near the leadership level" -- in other words: heads of state and their closest aides.

This information is intended for "the president and his national security advisors." Rampart-T is directed against some 20 countries, including China and Russia, but also Eastern European states.

The Americans recently drew up a secret chart that maps out what aspects of which countries require intelligence. The 12-page overview, created in April, has a scale of priorities ranging from red "1" (highest degree of interest) to blue "5" (low interest). Countries like Iran, North Korea, China and Russia are colored primarily red, meaning that additional information is required on virtually all fronts.

But the UN and the EU are also listed as espionage targets, with issues of economic stability as the primary concern. The focus, though, is also on trade policy and foreign policy (each rated "3") as well as energy security, food products and technological innovations (each rated "5").

Bugging the EU

The espionage attack on the EU is not only a surprise for most European diplomats, who until now assumed that they maintained friendly ties to the US government. It is also remarkable because the NSA has rolled out the full repertoire of intelligence-gathering tools -- and has apparently been taking this approach for many years now. According to an operational overview from September 2010 that is rated "secret," not only have the Americans infiltrated the EU mission to the UN in New York, but also the EU embassy in Washington, giving the building in the heart of the American capital the code name "Magothy."

According to this secret document, the NSA has targeted the European missions in three ways:

  • The embassies in Washington and New York are bugged.
  • At the embassy in New York, the hard disks have also been copied.
  • In Washington the agents have also tapped into the internal computer cable network.

The infiltration of both EU embassies gave the technicians from Fort Meade an invaluable advantage: It guaranteed the Americans continuous access, even if they temporarily lost contact with one of the systems -- due, for instance, to a technical update or because an EU administrator thought that he had discovered a virus.

The embassies are linked via a so-called virtual private network (VPN). "If we lose access to one site, we can immediately regain it by riding the VPN to the other side and punching a whole (sic!) out," the NSA technicians said during an internal presentation. "We have done this several times when we got locked out of Magothy."

Of particular note, the data systems of the EU embassies in America are maintained by technicians in Brussels; Washington and New York are connected to the larger EU network. Whether the NSA has been able to penetrate as far as Brussels remains unclear. What is certain, though, is that they had a great deal of inside knowledge from Brussels, as demonstrated by a classified report from the year 2005 concerning a visit by top American diplomat Clayland Boyden Gray at Fort Meade.

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1. optional
cdestache 08/26/2013
The information the NSA is trying to gather is for whole purpose of protecting Americans' interests including EU since both sides of the Atlantic have lots of economic ties for peaceful purposes. The end justified the means. EU should be thankful to the U.S. for providing current and past info related to security threats. It's not going to change for the U.S. on this issue, after all, an attack on its soil killed thousands of its citizens, challenging its existence, destroyed the two tallest buildings symbolizing capitalism at its best called "World Trade Center." Airbus, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Siemens, Rolls Royce, etc. are presented in the U.S. like part of its existence already, they're on U.S. soil physically employing thousands of Americans, perhaps those companies are one of the reasons why the NSA has to work much harder while people like Manning and Snowden can enjoy the fruits of happiness, either in well-fed, well-housed prison or watching HD TV and well-treated in beautiful Moscow for pleasures.
2. Daft
Londoner 08/26/2013
If this is "a surprise for most European diplomats" then they need to be fired for being so naive - not least because they almost certainly see similar intel gathered by their own intelligence services on their allies and enemies alike.
3. Loss of Trust
Jim in MD 08/26/2013
Of course, Europeans are right not to trust the US or their own governments. It's now clear that this has been going on since Bill Clinton's presidency with the tacit support of European governments. What is remarkable is that it hasn't hurt BMW or Siemens or Chinese oil bids around the world. The US government largely has used the intelligence it gathered to keep the world safe, pretty much like it promised. However, it seems like time to break off trade talks and end NATO. Europe really needs to develop its own institutions for its own good and the good of the world.
4. optional
peskyvera 08/26/2013
The world would be a much more peaceful place if the US would mind its own business instead of holding a gun to everyone's head: my way or you are dead. Frankly, with a 'friend' like the US, who needs enemies. And of course...never missing Yankee arrogance. China is conquering the world without firing a single shot; the US is destroying the entire world with more than a single shot.
5. I have to disagree
High Hat 08/26/2013
If we turn the USA into a police state then what are we wanting to defend? If we can't discern our friends from our enemies what's wrong with us? Our big problem in the USA is that we try to be so politically correct that we won't single out who our enemies are today. Why on earth are we supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries? The Obama administration has done more to hurt the USA's interests than any other administration in history.
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