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Listening Sector: Berlin Makes Easy Target for Spies

The heart of the German capital is about as big as two football pitches. Pariser Platz square, framed by the Brandenburg Gate and the Unter den Linden boulevard is the must-see destination for any visitor to Berlin. The Reichstag parliament building and the Chancellery are just a few minutes' walk from here, and the embassies of the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia are very close. This is where the power is concentrated -- and where mutual espionage is at its most intense.

It's isn't just the embassies of the US and UK whose roofs are equipped with conspicuous structures which experts say could conceal equipment for the illegal monitoring of phone calls. The Russian Embassy also has a rooftop building that German security authorities have had an eye on for a long time. Security officials refer to it as the "Russian woodshed" and it too is suspected of housing surveillance equipment.

"If someone makes an unencrypted telephone call in the Berlin government district, it's probably not just one foreign intelligence service that will be listening," said one high-ranking official. Research by SPIEGEL recently revealed that the NSA had been spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone for a long time. The Americans aren't the only ones collecting information in this way -- phone surveillance in central Berlin is too easy for that.

Embassies Can't Be Searched

According to security sources, it's technically possible to monitor all mobile phones used in the Pariser Platz area with an 80-centimeter parabolic antenna. Security experts had warned of this "vulnerable situation" even before the German government moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999.

There's little German authorities can do to stop the spying. Firstly, so-called "passive surveillance" can only be detected if it's done in a very amateurish way. In addition, the embassies are foreign territory where German agencies have no powers. They can't conduct searches.

So counter-espionage agents write polite letters to the ambassadors asking them for permission to inspect the architectural peculiarities on their buildings. They usually just get polite refusals. The only other thing they can do is warn German officials that their communications may not be secure, and to advise them to use mobile cryptophones, which are still pretty awkward to use.

The mass-circulation daily Bild reported on Thursday that members of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its expected partner in the next coalition government, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have agreed to measures to better secure communications, including the use of cryptophones. And only days ago, officials at the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) requested that the Chancellery, government ministers and high-ranking ministry officials switch to cryptophones in order to safeguard sensitive communications.

Germany's security services say they have been surprised by the intensity of the espionage activities of Germany's allies. Supposedly friendly embassies had not been systematically monitored, security sources say. After all, the German army doesn't' have its weapons turned on its friends.

The security services prioritized, concentrating their scarce resources on where they believed the biggest danger lay. Maybe, sources say, Germany needs to rethink where its focus should be.

'Germany Is In The Crosshairs'

Technological monitoring (signals intelligence or "sigint") is generally only one part of what intelligence services get up to in Germany. Foreign spies still try to recruit informants in large numbers in government offices, political parties and ministries for human intelligence, or "humint."

"Germany is in the crosshairs of the services," says one senior official. Accordingly, over the past year alone, the authorities have seen a three-digit rise in the number of such initial approach conversations, which mostly begin in a completely harmless and friendly manner; chatting away in the diplomatic arena.

The fact that much more may lie behind these contacts than appears at first glance is shown by the abundance of spies from Russia officially registered in Germany. The number has not reduced significantly since the end of the Cold War. According to the assessment of one expert, at least every third Russian diplomat in Germany is working for an intelligence agency. In addition, according to SPIEGEL's information, the number of so-called illegals -- agents who operate under the cover of a seemingly unremarkable civilian life -- runs into double figures. The sheer volume of radio traffic between Russian and potential agents in Western Europe provides a strong indication of this.

Heidrun, 47, and Andreas Anschlag, 53, were just such a couple. For more than 20 years they lived in Germany, her as a housewife, him as an engineer. At the same time, they were passing along information to Moscow's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). From October 2008 until shortly before their arrest in the fall of 2011, they ran Dutch diplomat Raymond P. as a source. He was an official at the Dutch Foreign Ministry in The Hauge and was given the codename "BR". He handed over hundreds of confidential documents and received at least 72,200. The transfer of the papers took place mostly in the Netherlands, and then Andreas Anschlag would leave the files in "dead drops" in the Bonn area in Germany, where they were subsequently picked up by employees from the Russian Embassy.

Unlike spies who travel through their operational areas under the guise of being diplomats, agents such as the Anschlags do not work under the protection of the embassy. In the worst case scenario, diplomats can be thrown out of the country -- but others can face potentially long prison sentences. Because of the high risk involved, they are known in Russian intelligence services as Wunderkinder, or child geniuses. The Anschlags are now stars in their industry even though they were sentenced to several years in prison. They are full of hope for an early commutation and a return to their homeland and the fame they will enjoy there.

[Source: By Jörg Diehl, Spiegel online international, Berlin, 21Nov13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 31Dec13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.