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You too, Britain?

Carla Bleiker / cdNovember 5, 2013

In the latest NSA scandal plot twist, Britain has been accused of spying on Germany from its Berlin embassy. German politicians are demanding consequences, but observers are hardly surprised by the revelations.

An aerial photograph from a helicopter shows the elegant stone buildings of Berlin. (Photo: Robert Grahn)
Image: Reuters

Britain is home to the mother of all secret service operations. Or at least, the world was taught to believe as much in the books of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. The British authors wrote masterful stories of spies caught up in the tug and pull of the cold war. And Berlin often cropped up as a setting. But now, Britain's spies have replaced fiction with reality.

In an article entitled "Britain's 'secret listening post in the heart of Berlin," the British newspaper "The Independent," one of the four largest in the UK, revealed facts related to its government's spying activities originating in documents released by former NSA employee and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The report indicates that a spy station is set up on the roof of Britain's embassy in Berlin. And, "in conjunction with aerial photographs and information about past spying activities in Germany," the NSA documents suggest that "Britain is operating its own covert listening station" in government quarters in Berlin.

When the story broke, Germany's Federal Foreign Office called in the British Ambassador to Germany - a measure less serious than the official summoning of the US Ambassador after revelations of US eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel's phone.

Damage control

A spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office confirmed that British Ambassador Simon McDonald was called in for talks at the ministry at the initiative of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. The spokesperson also added that "the interception of communications from the premises of a diplomatic mission would represent a breach of international law."

Duncan Campbell is one of the journalists who wrote the article for the British newspaper. According to Campbell, the US and Great Britain work closely together. "They're in the same bed as each other," he told DW in an interview. The journalist has been reporting on secret service activities for roughly 40 years, and, in the 1970s, was nearly jailed by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters(GCHQ) intelligence service.

That's part of the reason it's not more of a shock to him that, prior to the current article's publication, "The Independent" received a visitor.

"Late last night, a British government official approached a night-duty journalist at this paper, 'The Independent'," he said. Campbell went on to explain that the official demanded that certain details be removed from the article - details which, according to Campbell, had long ceased to be secret. With British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent threats over the British newspaper the Guardian's NSA revelations, such government pressure hardly comes as a shock.

Restrained surprise

And following the headline-grabbing NSA revelations of the past weeks, it is hardly surprising that London apparently took an interest in the inner workings of the German capital either.

A young man with curly bornw hair looks off camera during an informal interview with a red lamp in the background. (Photo: imago / teutopress)
Politician Jan Philipp Albrecht is hardly surprised by British spying revelationsImage: imago/teutopress

"Of course that's not a surprise anymore," said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Politician in European Parliament and a member of the EU's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. "What people should be talking about is what conclusions should be drawn."

The fact that Britain is accused of listening in on the conversations of German politicians from the roof of its embassy is an even greater breach of trust than similar actions taken by the US, Albrecht told DW. "It can't be that a European country like Great Britain is spying on other EU states."

Same rules for everyone?

In a close-up picture of a modern, brown-colored stone building, a rectangle of blue juts out from the facade. (Photo: Hans Wiedl)
Britain's embassy in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Eavesdropping by Britain will also present a problem with regard to future talks with the US. How can the countries present a unified, European front against spying? Chancellor Merkel, aiming her words at Washington, has already said, "Spying amongst friends - that's just not right." The words, of course, apply equally to Britain.

On Germany's public radio station Deutschlandfunk, Thomas Opperman, chairman of the German parliamentary panel that monitors the country's intelligence service, said that "Counterintelligence in Germany needs to be reorganized, anyway." The politician added that the country would have to work to deal with the accusations against the US and Britain. "Trust is good. Control is better," he said.

What countries have to achieve, he said, is "that we, in an alliance of values like NATO and the European Union, don't spy on each reciprocally."

The question, the politician added, is one of sovereignty.