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Britain allegedly spied on Merkel a mere stone’s throw from her desk

Published time: November 05, 2013 10:56
Edited time: November 06, 2013 07:48
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the terrace of the Chancellery with the TV tower and Reichstag in the background in Berlin (AFP Photo)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the terrace of the Chancellery with the TV tower and Reichstag in the background in Berlin (AFP Photo)

Britain is using its Berlin embassy to spy on the nearby Bundestag, as well as the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Concern was raised following the latest Snowden revelations and prompted the German FM to invite the British ambassador 'for a talk'.

The news comes just one week after the alleged closure of an American listening ‘nest’ just 150 meters away from the British embassy, which is believed to be damage control following the embarrassing details of how the US itself is listening in on Merkel.

NSA documents leaked by Snowden, and supported by satellite photographs and related information about past spying activities, talk of high-tech listening equipment perched right on top of the British embassy, the Independent revealed in an exclusive. 

The allegations prompted the German Foreign Ministry to call on British Ambassador Simon McDonald to discuss Tuesday's reports. “At the instigation of Foreign Minister (Guido) Westerwelle, the British ambassador was asked to come for a talk at the Foreign Ministry,” the Ministry said in a statement.

“The director of the European department asked for an explanation of current reports in British media and indicated that tapping communications from a diplomatic mission would be a violation of international law”, it continued.

The roof of the British embassy appears to contain a white, box-like structure that only shows up when photographed from above. The suspected listening device has been mounted atop the roof since the embassy’s opening in 2000. Germany’s centers of political power are all built around the Brandenburg Gate, within easy reach of the facility’s equipment.

The strength of the equipment has been assessed as such that it can intercept mobile phone conversations, Wi-Fi traffic, and even long-distance calls made from anywhere in Berlin.

The reason for the suspicions has to do with the striking resemblance of the device to Cold-War-era toys used by the British in West Berlin. There, housed in the now defunct Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain), the GCHQ used to intercept messages between Russia and East Germany.

“We don’t comment on intelligence questions,” came the reply from British Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman. But according to some, like the German Green Party’s MEP, Jan Albrecht, “If GCHQ runs a listening post on the top of the UK’s Berlin embassy it is clearly targeting politicians and journalists.”

“This is hardly in the spirit of European co-operation. We are not enemies,” Albrecht said in response to the spokesman’s comments.

The mysterious 'white box' sitting atop the British Embassy in Berlin, thought to be a high-tech spying device (Image from tagesschau.de)

All this is happening in the midst of a spy scandal involving America’s own spying on classified German communications.

But unlike the American case, the Germans appeared to have missed the connection with a similar-looking unit perched atop the roof of the British embassy, the Independent believes – despite there being reason to think the suspected British listening post could even have been linked to a similar NSA device that became the centerpiece of the US-related scandal. 

Evidence of the United States’ own secret listening post has embarrassingly popped up in infrared images taken by Germany’s ARD television, showing an anonymous rooftop building. The facility’s heat signature shows that it has now been shut down, almost immediately after Angela Merkel told US President Barack Obama: “spying among friends – it cannot be.”

The device was housed in a structure resembling a box –just like the one on the British embassy’s roof – complete with fiberglass windows through which signals could pass without interference. It was reportedly a joint effort by the CIA and NSA, with agents from both agencies picked for the highly classified Special Collection Service (SCS) unit.

‘Stateroom’, as the initiative was christened, is described as “covert SIGINT [signals intelligence] collection sites located in diplomatic facilities abroad... [including] SCS (at US diplomatic facilities) and government communications headquarters (at British diplomatic facilities).”

The “concealed collection system,” as the document refers to it, actually depends on “sheds” hidden inside fake windows. “Collection equipment on a building is concealed so as not to reveal SIGNET activity…antennas are sometimes hidden in false architectural features or roof maintenance sheds.”

The secrecy of those missions was nearly air-tight, with work being carried out by a handful of diplomats whose real assignments were unknown even to the majority of their own colleagues.

British Embassy in Berlin (Reuters)

“These sites are small in size and in the number of personnel staffing them. They are covert, and their true mission is not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff at the facility where they are assigned,” the paper said.

The document leaked by Snowden explains just how important the embassy bases are as a technology for NSA and other clandestine agencies. So much so that a fake embassy site was once built in a wooded areas outside Washington, DC, to test the efficacy of the spying devices, as well as train field agents for the specific purpose of manning those stations.

And the device outside DC also closely resembles the one atop the British embassy in Berlin.

According to Snowden’s leak, such operations were run by all signatories of the ‘Five Eyes’ agreement – also including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Further information was found in another NSA document, pertaining to how the agency recently closed an estimated 100 similar spying stations in embassies around the world, transferring their workload to Britain’s GCHQ. Apparently, the SCS has been operating a total of 19 facilities in Europe in 2010, along with the discovered Berlin and Frankfurt posts.

These revelations come just as German intelligence figures traveled to DC with the intention of negotiating an end to NSA spying on German land.

However, Britain also being Germany’s close neighbor, the latest allegations could prove even more damaging than the ones related to the US. The Independent believes that, if the equipment atop the British embassy is indeed an interception device, it is highly unlikely that it would not have been used to capture Merkel’s communications. The chancellor is known to conduct a large portion of business over the phone.