Friendly Fire: How GCHQ Monitors Germany, Israel and the EU

By Laura Poitras, and Holger Stark

Photo Gallery: The Cornwall Lists Photos
AP

Documents from the archive of whistleblower and former NSA worker Edward Snowden show that Britain's GCHQ signals intelligence agency has targeted European, German and Israeli politicians for surveillance.

The American spy stayed in northern Cornwall for three weeks. He was delighted with the picturesque setting, with its dramatic cliffs and views of the Atlantic.

In a classified report, the NSA employee also raved about the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ's field of antennas, located high above the Atlantic coast, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) west of London. Her Majesty's agents have been working at the site, where 29 satellite antennas are aimed skyward, for decades. The Cornwall intelligence base, once part of the Echelon global signals intelligence network, was previously known as "Morwenstow." Today the site is known as "GCHQ Bude."

In addition to its geographical conditions, which are ideal for monitoring important communications satellites, Bude has another site-specific advantage: Important undersea cables land at nearby Widemouth Bay. One of the cables, called TAT-14, begins at German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom's undersea cable terminal in the East Frisia region of northern Germany.

There were suspicions as early as this summer that the British intelligence service in Bude was eavesdropping on German targets. Now documents from the archive of US whistleblower Edward Snowden contain the first concrete evidence to support this suspicion: German telephone numbers. SPIEGEL, Britain's Guardian and the New York Times, as part of a joint effort, were able to view and evaluate the material.

List Includes Embassies, Leaders

According to the documents, the GCHQ Bude station listed phone numbers from the German government network in Berlin in its target base as well as those of German embassies, including the one in Rwanda. That, at least, was the case in 2009, the year the document in question was created. Other documents indicate that the British, at least intermittently, kept tabs on entire country-to-country satellite communication links, like "Germany-Georgia" and "Germany-Turkey," for example, of certain providers.

The name of the European Union's competition commissioner and current European Commission vice president, Joaquin Almunia, also appears in lists as well as email addresses that are listed as belonging to the "Israeli prime minister" and the defense minister of that country.

The details from the British intelligence agency's databases could have political consequences. The British will now face an uncomfortable debate over their activities, which are apparently also directed against partner countries in the EU and the political leaders of those nations. SPIEGEL already reported in September on a GCHQ attack on partly government-owned Belgian telecommunications provider Belgacom.

Possible Headache for Cameron

At a dinner during the Brussels EU summit in late October, two days after SPIEGEL's revelation that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone had been tapped, French President François Hollande began a debate during the meal over surveillance practices in Europe and called for the establishment of a code of conduct for intelligence agencies.

British Prime Minister David Cameron remained oddly silent during the discussion, in solidarity with his American friends -- but also, presumably, because the GCHQ intelligence service doesn't behave very differently from its big brother, the National Security Agency, and because of their agency's close cooperation with the NSA in the realm of satellite surveillance. If it is confirmed that the British targeted the phones of German government officials and EU Commissioner Almunia, Cameron will have a problem.

The documents do not indicate the intensity and length of any collection of targets. The German numbers are only a small part of a bundle of documents filled with international telephone numbers and corresponding annotations. The documents viewed by SPIEGEL, the Guardian and the New York Times appear to represent only a small cross-section, and they include hundreds of telephone numbers from more than 60 different country codes. The bundle of documents provides the first glimpse of the scope of Britain's surveillance ambitions.

EU Figures, Companies Targeted

The documents also show that the surveillance net cast by GCHQ and its political overseers is remarkably comprehensive. From Bude and other GCHQ sites, the agency appears to be systematically monitoring international country-to-country telephone calls made through satellite connections, as well as email communications (known as "C2C," or computer-to-computer). This is evidenced by, for example, long lists relating to connections between places like Belgium and various African countries.

The entry "EU COMM JOAQUIN ALMUNIA" appears in an "informal" analysis of the communication paths between Belgium and Africa prepared in January 2009. At the time, the peak of the euro crisis, Almunia was still the EU economics and finance commissioner and he already had his own entry and personal identification code in the British target database, with the codename "Broadoak."

It's unlikely that the surveillance interest in him -- at least when it comes to industrial espionage -- has diminished since then. Almunia, now the EU's competition minister, is currently ruling on, among other issues, whether US Internet giant Google is abusing its market power, thereby harming European companies. Almunia recently imposed fines on US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, as well as financial companies like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase.

Non-Governmental Organizations Included

The EU commissioner's name also appears in a second document from 2008, which describes a communication path between France and Africa. According to the document, Almunia, or a number assigned to him in the British target database, called a number in Ivory Coast on Oct. 30 or 31, 2008. SPIEGEL was unable to obtain a response from Commissioner Almunia on the incident by the time it went to press.

In addition to many political and "diplomatic targets," the lists contain African leaders, their family members, ambassadors and businesspeople. They also include representatives of international organizations, such as those of United Nations agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). A noticeably large number of diplomatic missions to the United Nations in Geneva are also listed.

Even non-governmental organizations like Doctors of the World (Médicins du Monde) appear on the British intelligence agency lists, along with a representative of the Swiss IdeasCentre and others. Individual companies can also be found on the list, especially in the fields of telecommunications and banking. The partly government-owned French defense contractor Thales, along with Paris-based energy giant Total, is also mentioned.

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1. Snowden
JonSP 12/20/2013
When Snowden and his friends and allies start to release info on China, Russia, North Korea (And anyone else who is a military/political/economic enemy of the US and Western World), I may start to think about considering him anything more than a spy and all the others as puppet masters/agents of influence.
2. optional
peskyvera 12/20/2013
And so the cesspool keeps getting deeper and smellier. I feel soiled! This is disgusting. US/UK: birds of a feather flocking together. Wake up Europe...stop sucking up to these despicable people.
3. its what we pay them for
spon-facebook-10000139396 12/20/2013
Of course British spies spy: it is what we pay them for: it is their function. I would have thought even Der Spiegel could understand that.
4. Since the UK sees the EU as an adversary, kick it out of the EU
greanknight 12/20/2013
Since the UK sees the EU as an adversary to be spied upon, kick the UK out of the EU.
5. Get Over IT!!!
Fritz Oz 12/21/2013
Espionage is ongoing and will always be ongoing. Since biblical times it has been called the worlds second oldest profession. Israel spies on its strongest allies and continues to do so for its survival. To assume that our telephone calls are ever going to be totally untraceable or collected is a fatal fantasy.
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