Two weeks ago, in the large hall of the German federal press conference building in Berlin, Hans-Georg Maaßen, the President of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, said something interesting: "We have not had any indications as of yet that the NSA is spying in Germany." No indications? The attorney Mr. Maaßen values accuracy. What hee meant was that his office had no proof. That is how he explains it. That is surely true. Only, one must be fairly naive to assume from that that the NSA is not spying in Berlin.
Because according to research conducted by ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE, German security authorities have had clear indications for more than a decade that the American and British intelligence services have been spying on communications in Berlin government quarter on a large scale, which is substantiated by confidential files of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the Federal Interior Ministry (BMI) and the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI).
Counter-intelligence could never prove the activities of the friendly eavesdroppers. But German security agencies were already becoming suspicious around the millennium, when new embassies were springing up in Berlin, and long before the Snowden revelations. That is why in May 2001 the division responsible for counter-intelligence at the Federal Border Guard (BGS) sent a brief classified as "VS – Only for Official Use" titled "The Need for a New Threat Analysis in Berlin-Mitte" to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. That document includes this passage: "The danger in the new power center of Berlin exists in that the appropriate targets (ministries, party headquarters, hotels, and headquarters of businesses) are joined in close quarters with highly professional potential attackers. Miscellaneous antenna systems, which are mounted visibly and partially camouflaged, indicate efforts there to intercept information from the airwaves." The British Embassy was specifically named in the report. It states that on the roof of the embassy, which opened in July 2000, there is a radome, or an enclosure for antennae. Images taken from a helicopter in April 2000 show the white cylinder. The British reportedly explained that it was "placed there for artistic reasons." The BGS decided, however, that because of its dimensions and construction it was well suited to contain larger antenna systems.
Just a stone’s throw from the British Embassy today is the U.S. Embassy, which at the time was still under construction. But it was still mentioned in the BGS report. The reason: At the old U.S. Embassy, antennae systems had already been detected, "which typically could be used for reconnaissance purposes."
In June 2001, one month later, the BSI drew similar conclusions. In a confidential letter to the Federal Interior Ministry, the office reported that it together with the BGS took the view that open lines of communication were probably being intercepted to gain "sensitive information." It is true that no countries were named in that document, but it referred to diplomatic stations "in the immediate neighborhood of the federal government’s institutions," which applies to the British and U.S. embassies. The "presumable main targets" were believed to be "official and private mobile communications."
In September 2001, three months later, the BGS went one step further and wrote to the BfV: "The most recent photographs notably of the British Embassy show clearly that apparently signals intelligence against Germany is being operated there. Targets could be in particular the radio relay routes of GSM mobile radio networks." The BGS warned that these radio links sent mobile calls unencrypted from the respective antenna towers to the provider’s mobile network. In other words: Anyone making a mobile phone call in the government quarter would be the potential target of the eavesdroppers, including then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
These documents prove that at the latest by 2001, everyone officially occupied with espionage must have assumed that the British and Americans were intercepting mobile communications in the center of Berlin from their embassies.
When Der Spiegel, with the support of documents of the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, reported in October 2013 that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone had likely been listened to from within the U.S. Embassy, it was news to the public, but the German federal government and security authorities might have been less surprised.
In reaction, the BfV did send out a helicopter to take photos of the embassies’ rooftops. However, the office subsequently presented to the parliamentary supervisory board of the Bundestag only the weak statement that suspicious structures were photographed, but they could not prove anything. The confidential talking points of the BfV contained the quote: "An assertion over the actual purpose of the structures cannot be made based on the aerial photographs alone."
It would have been possible to find out more thorough information about that long before. Already in March 2002, the BSI proposed more precise analyses of the structures because helicopter flights had not produced any proof: One could photograph the radomes with millimeter wave cameras, or the Transall airplanes of the Luftwaffe could produce radar images, making hidden metal structures visible.