Devil’s Mountain spy post has heard it all before as Prism taints Germany’s relations with US
The NSA may have abandoned the Berlin listening post but Edward Snowden’s revelations show the agency remains active in Germany
For most of the cold war Teufelsberg, the highest point in former West Berlin was the home of the National Security Agency’s electronic ears, trained eastwards behind the Iron Curtain. Photograph: Tomas Glanc/isifa/Getty Images
If German chancellor Angela Merkel looks southwest from her office window, she can see the Teufelsberg – the Devil’s Mountain. What sounds like the lair of a Famous Five villain is a man-made hill of wartime rubble, topped with white spherical structures like giant golf balls.
For most of the cold war, this highest point in former West Berlin was the home of the National Security Agency’s electronic ears, trained eastwards behind the Iron Curtain. Today it is a tattered ruin where unwanted visitors slip through holes in the fence and evade security guards for a forbidden journey into the past.
Last week, Mr Snowden told Der Spiegel the NSA bugged EU embassies and intercepted data from half a billion German emails, texts and phone calls monthly, prompting the German leader to telephone President Barack Obama last Wednesday to ask for answers.
“The cold war is over . . . bugging is not what friends do,” she said at a weekend meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
As senior German officials left for a high-level meeting in Washington yesterday, they left behind a German leader treading a fine line between public outrage and political procrastination ahead of next September’s general election.
“She’s in a bit of a fix but, until there is real information, the scandal can’t really boil over, so she’ll keep sending people to Washington demanding answers,” said Dr Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at the Free University.
German historian Josef Foschepoth says the German leader faces an unpalatable choice between being accused of lying or of being kept in the dark by her intelligence service.
“Either [German] politicians are getting outraged even though they know better or because they lack knowledge,” said Prof Foschepoth of Freiburg University on German radio.
He claims it is neither unusual nor illegal for the NSA to eavesdrop on German communications – rather it is in keeping with decades of post-war precedent.
In his book, Monitored Germany, he writes how, in the decade after the second World War, victorious Allied forces tapped phone lines passing from Paris to Prague.
The practice continued even as West Germany made a transition to a sovereign state, after Bonn signed agreements guaranteeing Allied eavesdropping entitlements.
In 1958 alone, according to Prof Foschepoth, some five million phone calls were tapped from central exchanges in major cities.
A special facility in Frankfurt recorded all telex activity, including that from embassies, while every month as many as 650,000 letters and parcels were randomly checked and often destroyed.
When the practice was exposed in 1963 as a breach of constitutional guarantees on privacy of communications, Bonn agreed new laws to provide greater protection. But these regulations had loopholes, allowing Allied forces outsource their eavesdropping requests to their West German intelligence service.
These provisions remain on the statute books today, though a government spokesman said they have not been used since 1990.
Another postwar-era regulation still in place, agreed between Bonn and its Nato allies in 1968, made “every military commander entitled to adopt appropriate protective measures in the case of an immediate threat to his armed forces”.
This provision was cited by US secret services when challenged on the legal basis for the “Echelon” system to intercept global communications and, Berlin officials conceded yesterday in Berlin, could be used to justify Prism.
Yesterday Merkel loyalists played down the latest claims by Mr Snowden that the BND is “in bed with” the NSA.
But, just last week, the head of Germany’s BND secret service confirmed close contacts with the NSA, which is building a new €124 million “Consolidated Intelligence Centre” on a US army base in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt.
Dr Merkel’s ailing Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partner, after four miserable years in office, has seized on the Snowden affair as its last chance to avoid general election annihilation. Dr Merkel’s Bavarian allies, facing dual state and federal elections, are getting nervous, too.
“The opposition,” said political scientist Gero Neugebauer, “finally have a topic to polarise and score points.”
All thanks to Edward Snowden, Germany’s general election has been struck by the curse of Devil’s Mountain.