Obama under pressure over Merkel phone tap allegations
German magazine claims US has been spying on chancellor’s mobile phone since 2002
Barack Obama standing in front of a window with a view of the Reichstag during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in 2008. Photograph: Reuters.
The White House was under intense pressure yesterday to reveal the extent to which Barack Obama knew about US surveillance operations targeting the leaders of allied countries.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was reportedly spied on since 2002 from a secret listening post inside the US embassy in Berlin that monitors all mobile phone, satellite and wireless internet traffic in the German capital.
Der Spiegel claims the surveillance took place via a special antennae dubbed “Einstein” and concealed in a windowless room on the roof of the embassy adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag.
The White House refused to comment on that report – or others that emerged in Germany, raising questions about how much Barack Obama knew about the spying operation.
Caitlin Hayden, the White House national security council spokeswoman, said: “We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”
‘Special Collection Service’
Drawing on information provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the magazine reports that US intelligence operates 80 such listening posts around the world, dubbed “Special Collection Service”.
The magazine said the posts are operated jointly by the NSA and CIA, the US foreign intelligence service, in 80 locations worldwide. Two stations operate in Germany – Berlin and Frankfurt – and, in total, some 19 operate in Europe including Paris, Prague and Madrid. The US embassy in Dublin is not listed as a listening post.
“The SCS teams work mostly undercover in shielded areas of American embassies and consulates where, officially, they are accredited as diplomats and enjoy the related privileges,” the magazine writes. “From the protection of the embassy they can eavesdrop and look. They just are not allowed to be caught.”
The listening equipment is so precise, according to files seen by the magazine, that it allows the source of signals to be localised.
NSA documents leaked to Der Spiegel contained the German leader’s number listed as “GE Chancellor Merkel”. It was assigned to the NSA directorate for Europe responsible for acquisition and analysis of intelligence.
The number was apparently on the active list until shortly before President Obama’s Berlin visit last June. There is no information in the files indicating whether calls and texts were simply logged, or their contents recorded.
An unnamed NSA source told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper the agency succeeded in in tapping not just her standard Nokia mobile, but also her supposedly spy-proof encrypted mobile. The only one of Merkel’s telephones not tapped, the NSA official said, was the encrypted land line in her office.
This was the line Dr Merkel used on Wednesday afternoon to complain personally to President Obama in English. Chancellery officials say Mr Obama reportedly told Dr Merkel he knew nothing of the surveillance and apologised.
The unnamed NSA official contradicts this version of events in Bild am Sonntag, claiming Mr Obama was informed of the action by NSA chief Keith Alexander in 2010.
“Obama didn’t stop the action then, rather left it run on,” said an unnamed NSA official to the newspaper, alleging the intelligence gathered went straight to the White House.
A Berlin delegation, including the heads of foreign and domestic intelligence services, travels to Washington this week to begin talks about a so-called no-spy agreement.
Federal interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich cranked up the rhetoric yesterday on the surveillance allegations.
“If the Americans tapped mobile phones in Germany they broke German law on German territory,” he said. “That breaches our sovereignty, is a crime and those responsible must be brought to justice.”
Dr Merkel’s likely future coalition partners, the Social Democrat (SPD), have demanded a full parliamentary inquiry into the allegations and proposed inviting NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to testify.
“Mr Snowden’s information seem to be credible whereas, in this matter, the US governments has apparently lied to us,” said senior SPD politician Thomas Oppermann.
– (Additional reporting: Guardian Service)