1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Spy chronology

Marcus Lütticke / smsOctober 31, 2013

First it was mobile phone data to fight terrorism, then the NSA surveillance scandal expanded to include the German chancellor as well as millions of individuals around the world. DW reviews how the spy scandal grew.

This undated photo provided by the National Security Agency (NSA) shows its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo by NSA via Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

On May 20, 2013, he left behind his life as he knew it. The 29-year-old IT specialist and employee at the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm Edward Snowden boarded a plane from Hawaii to Hong Kong with a wealth of information documenting the espionage and surveillance programs at the US National Security Agency (NSA) packed in his bags.

By the time the plane was in the air, the American knew he would probably never set foot in his home country again, he told journalists with the British newspaper "The Guardian" a few days later.

In the interview, which took place in a Hong Kong hotel, he explained how and why he decided to take such a step by saying his conscience could no longer allow working for a system that could observe people's communications at any time regardless of whether the people have done anything to warrant such attention.

The first publication

On June 6, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote the first of many articles in "The Guardian" based on documents provided by Snowden. The report focused on the NSA's secret program that collects connection data on millions of Americans' phone calls. The issue quickly spread beyond the pages of "The Guardian" to the world's media, including Deutsche Welle. When the first article was published, it was unclear where the information originated.

A file video grab courtesy of British The Guardian newspaper, London 10 June 2013 showing former CIA employee Edward Snowden Photo: EPA/GLENN GREENWALD / LAURA POITRAS / HANDOUT
Snowden said he could no longer be part of the surveillance stateImage: picture-alliance/dpa

More reports on secret surveillance by the NSA followed on a nearly daily basis in "The Guardian" and the US paper "The Washington Post." On June 7, the first report of a program called PRISM made it to press. The PRISM data collection program stored digital communication between people in the United States with people outside the country.

Hunt for the whistleblower

As new reports surfaced, the search for the leak continued feverishly in Washington. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the US Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, said the informant needed to be hunted down and brought to justice. On June 9, Edward Snowden admitted he was the source of the information on CNN.

He appeared to feel at least somewhat safe in Hong Kong, even if his hotel was only a few meters from a CIA office, as he told "The Guardian" in an interview. Through his work for the American intelligence agency, he knew about the organization's worldwide network. The media began speculating whether China would extradite Snowden to the United States to face a trial.

A diplomatic low point

While an increasing amount of information, including internal workshop materials concerning PRISM, were published, countries around the world began asking the US government questions about its spying habits. In Germany, which was identified by one of the documents as being among the most closely watched countries, opposition politicians and the public demanded an explanation. When Obama visited Berlin on June 19, he said the efforts were made in the legal fight against international terrorism and that a court was responsible for overseeing the NSA's activity.

U.S. President Barack Obama stands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after their joint news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, June 19, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Merkel's tone on the NSA changed after learning her own phone was tappedImage: Reuters

On June 21, a report appeared describing how the British intelligence agency GCHQ ran a program named Tempora that tapped into fiber optic cables running under British territory.

Edward Snowden left Hong Kong for Russia and on June 23 landed in Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. Speculation emerged that he was planning to travel to Cuba or a South American country but instead ended up stuck in the airport's transit area for weeks.

When Bolivian President Evo Morales left a conference in Moscow on July 2, his presidential plane was forced to land in Vienna, after France, Spain, Italy and Portugal reportedly denied access to their airspace. The forced landing also occurred among rumors, which proved false, that Snowden was on board. On August 1, Snowden was granted a year's asylum in Russia. Shortly after the announcement, Obama cancelled a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Just before the visit would have taken place, "The Guardian" reported on July 31 about another NSA surveillance program named XKeyscore. The program provided access to the full text of e-mails around the world. The system is reportedly as easy for agents to use as Google.

A woman looking at a graphic of XKeyscore locations on a map of the world Photo: APA-FOTO: ROLAND SCHLAGER
XKeyscore collected and saved data from around the worldImage: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

Details of the programs continued to be uncovered all summer. Germany was shocked by a report on October 23 in "Der Spiegel" newsmagazine that said the US intelligence agency had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone and been listening in for years. By this point, millions of German citizens had already found out their private communications were being examined.

Tapping Merkel

The chancellor, who had been somewhat reserved in her remarks on the series of spying scandals, expressed her personal anger that her communications were being monitored. In a phone call, Obama reportedly told Merkel he was not aware she was under surveillance. The discovery, however, has become a major wedge in German-US relations.

The most recent discoveries to come from Snowden's documents appeared on October 30 in "The Washington Post." The paper wrote that US intelligence agents cooperated with Britain's GCHQ to gain access to Google and Yahoo data and information from millions of users.

The spying scandals are expected to continue dominating the headlines for some time to come. European leaders have also discussed ways of protecting their citizens from surveillance. At the same time, however, the British intelligence service continues to work closely with the US. Members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, have said they intend to call for a parliamentary inquiry into the US surveillance program - an inquiry for which Edward Snowden may deliver testimony.