German accusations of US spying run fast and furious

German media cite unnamed NSA sources saying Obama knew Merkel was tapped. US sources on and off the record say it isn't so. 

Michael Sohn/AP
People walk in front of the US embassy in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Washington tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone from the embassy. At left is the Brandenburg Gate.

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Washington went on the defensive over the weekend as new reports citing unnamed US intelligence sources gave embarrassing details of the National Security Agency's surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama's knowledge thereof.

German media on Sunday aired new details and accusations of the depth of the NSA's spying in Germany, ramping up the tensions between Berlin and Washington.

Bild am Sontag quotes an unnamed NSA official saying that NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander had briefed Obama in 2010 on the agency's surveillance of Mrs. Merkel, reports Agence France-Presse. "Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue," the source added. And Der Spiegel reports that according to documents it obtained, Merkel was first put under surveillance by the NSA in 2002.

But US officials, on the record and anonymously, deny that Obama knew the particulars of the NSA spying on world leaders, including that Merkel was specifically targeted.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to an unnamed US official, the decision to spy on Merkel would have been made within the NSA, and Obama would not have been consulted. "These decisions are made at NSA," the official said. "The president doesn't sign off on this stuff."

The Journal notes further that if Der Spiegel's report that the spying dates back to 2002 is true, "it is less likely NSA would have had a reason to brief the Obama White House without a specific reason to do so, because it would have been seen as one of many continuing surveillance programs at the agency."

And the NSA denied the Bild report outright, with a spokesperson saying that General Alexander "did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," according to AFP.

Still, the episode adds to shakier German-American relations. Der Spiegel indicates that regardless of Obama's personal knowledge, the US spying has been long and systemic.

Der Spiegel reports that the NSA's "Special Collection Service" unit has been operating out of the Berlin embassy, apparently from an office located on the roof of the embassy building in the heart of Berlin's government district.

A "top secret" classified NSA document from the year 2010 shows that a unit known as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS) is operational in Berlin, among other locations. It is an elite corps run in concert by the US intelligence agencies NSA and CIA.

The secret list reveals that its agents are active worldwide in around 80 locations, 19 of which are in Europe -- cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague and Geneva. The SCS maintains two bases in Germany, one in Berlin and another in Frankfurt. That alone is unusual. But in addition, both German bases are equipped at the highest level and staffed with active personnel. ...

[British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, analyzing the American embassy in Berlin,] refers to window-like indentations on the roof of the US Embassy. They are not glazed but rather veneered with "dielectric" material and are painted to blend into the surrounding masonry. This material is permeable even by weak radio signals. The interception technology is located behind these radio-transparent screens, says Campbell. The offices of SCS agents would most likely be located in the same windowless attic.

Der Spiegel adds that the scandal is fueling opposition to the proposed US-EU free-trade agreement. Some 58 percent of Germans support breaking off negotiations with the US due to the NSA spying, and Bavarian Economy Minister Ilse Aigner, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, called for putting talks "on ice until the accusations against the NSA have been clarified."

Oddly, despite all the outrage, at least one historian suggests that the US spying in Germany may actually be legal. Historian Josef Foschepoth told Deutsche Welle that in the aftermath of World War II, the West German government granted the Allies, including the US, special surveillance rights in the country that still apply today.

In other words, as the historian points out, it's possible that even the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone had some sort of legal basis. Although the treaty documents do not explicitly allow the US secret service to spy on the German government, they do not explicitly forbid it, either.

In the treaty, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer granted the Allies certain rights that prevailed over the confidentiality laws pertaining to mail and telecommunications as stipulated in the German Basic Law. "This is how the big German-Allied intelligence service complex came into being," said Foschepoth.

But Nikolaos Gazeas, an expert on international law at the University of Cologne, told Deutsche Welle that it is unlikely that spying on the West German government itself would be allowed. "Even if one assumes that the Allies were granted these kinds of rights back then, the intentions of the parties involved in the contract still need to be taken into account – and even back then it would not have been considered acceptable to spy on the German government," he said.

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