The German government on Monday confirmed that a previously reported operation targeting potential American eavesdropping facilities located on German soil took place at the end of August. Both a spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Interior Ministry admitted on Monday that a Federal Police helicopter had conducted a low-altitude flyover of the United States Consulate in Frankfurt in order to take high-resolution photographs. The apparent aim of the mission was to identify suspected listening posts on the roof of the consulate.
According to the newsmagazine Focus, the Eurocopter circled over the US representation at an altitude of just 60 meters (200 feet). The magazine quoted an unnamed government official stating that Germany wanted to send a message to the Americans that it would not tolerate eavesdropping technologies on German soil. "The message to the American friends was meant to be: Stop. Germany strikes back!" The flyover was first reported last week by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
On Monday, the government in Berlin sought to play down the incident. The Interior Ministry said merely that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which had ordered the helicopter flyover, is responsible for the security of foreign installations in Germany, but also for defending the country from the spying activities of foreign countries. The spokeswoman refused to answer dozens of follow-up questions on whether the surveillance flight over the consulate had been a routine operation or whether it was a targeted search for hidden antennas. "I neither can nor want to provide any response," the spokeswoman said.
American Security Surprised by Action
But it doesn't appear there was anything routine about the Eurocopter mission -- if there had been, police would have almost surely notified the Americans beforehand. Instead, security personnel at the consulate appear to have been surprised by the flyover. They even took pictures as it happened during the morning of August 28. A short time afterwards, the deputy US ambassador telephoned with the German Foreign Ministry to discuss the issue. But what the ministry is now describing as an "information exchange," was apparently a complaint.
The flight appears to be connected to the revelations of vast US surveillance made by former intelligence service contractor Edward Snowden. According to the American whistleblower, the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance service has established secret eavesdropping posts at 80 US embassies and consulates around the world. In the internal documents exposed by Snowden, these are referred to as the "Special Collection Service". The papers also state that the bugging units should be kept secret from partner countries. If it were leaked, a document reads, this would "cause serious harm to relations between the US and a foreign government."
The response by domestic intelligence would seem to belie German government attempts to play down the surveillance affair. The report in Focus claims that the Frankfurt operation was ordered by Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff and the German government point man for intelligence services. The politician, a member of Merkel's conservative CDU party, has made extensive public comments suggesting that the NSA affair has passed. But the report suggested he was furious at reports of spying technology at US diplomatic outposts in Germany.
The German government left open on Monday the question of whether the flyover had provided any clarity about the suspected eavesdropping technology. The spokesperson said that only relevant committees in the national parliament would be informed. Still, experts believe the move was intended more as a symbolic gesture that as a serious effort to try to find surveillance equipment. They believe that the Germans just want to show that if push comes to shove, they can also get more aggressive. One official spoke of a symbolic "shot across the bow."