Revealed: Britain's 'secret listening post in the heart of Berlin'

Claims that GCHQ has maintained spying operations even after US pulled out

Concerns were raised tonight that Britain operates a top-secret listening post from its Berlin embassy to eavesdrop on the seat of German power.

UPDATE: Germany calls in Britain's ambassador to demand explanation over 'secret Berlin listening post'

Documents leaked by the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden show that GCHQ is, together with the US and other key partners, operating a network of electronic spy posts from diplomatic buildings around the world, which intercept data in host nations.

An American intercept “nest” on top of its embassy in Berlin – less than 150 metres from Britain’s own diplomatic mission – is believed to have been shut down last week as the US scrambled to limit the damage from revelations that it listened to mobile phone calls made by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the NSA documents, in conjunction with aerial photographs and  information about past spying activities in Germany, suggest that Britain is operating its own covert listening station within a stone’s throw of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, and Ms Merkel’s offices in the Chancellery, using hi-tech equipment housed on the embassy roof.

The potentially toxic allegation that Britain has a listening station in the capital of a close European Union ally will test relations between London and Berlin only days after the row between Germany and the US about its own clandestine activities. Jan Albrecht, an MEP for Germany’s Green Party and a leading campaigner on privacy and data protection, told The Independent: “If GCHQ runs a listening post on the top of the UK’s Berlin embassy, it is clearly targeting politicians and journalists. Do these people pose a threat?

“The EU has asked David Cameron’s Government to explain the activities of GCHQ in Europe but it has declined to do so, saying it does not comment on activities in the interest of national security. This is hardly in the spirit of European co-operation. We are not enemies.”

Asked to respond to the concerns last night, Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said: “We don’t comment on intelligence questions.”

Infrared images taken by a German television station, ARD, appear to show that the US embassy spying facility, housed in an anonymous rooftop building, has now been shut down after an incendiary clash in which Mrs Merkel told President Barack Obama it was “just not done” for friendly nations to spy on each other.

The heat signature from the structure dropped dramatically last week in the immediate aftermath of the conversation, and equipment inside has not been detected as having been turned on since.

The eavesdropping base, concealed in a box-like structure with special windows made of fibreglass which are opaque to light but allow radio signals to pass unhindered, was run jointly by CIA and NSA agents in a top-secret unit called the Special Collection Service (SCS). Despite the row the German authorities appear not to have noticed – or protested about – a potential parallel and linked surveillance unit on top of the British embassy.

The GCHQ 'nest' on the top of the UK’s Berlin embassy (Buggedplanet.info) The GCHQ 'nest' on the top of the UK’s Berlin embassy (Buggedplanet.info)
According to one NSA document, Washington recently closed some of the 100 SCS locations it operates in embassies around the world and transferred some of the work to GCHQ, which is based in Cheltenham. In 2010, the SCS was known to operate 19 facilities in Europe, including stations in both Berlin and Frankfurt.

Documents shown to The Independent state that the operation uses equipment hidden within the fabric of diplomatic buildings and only a small number of personnel operating under diplomatic cover whose “true mission” is unknown even to the majority of their colleagues.

Aerial photographs of the British embassy in Berlin show a potential eavesdropping base enclosed inside a white, cylindrical tent-like structure which cannot be easily seen from the streets. The structure has been in place since the embassy, which was built following the reunification of Germany, opened in 2000.

The structure bears a striking resemblance to spying equipment used in GCHQ’s Cold War listening post in West Berlin at the now-abandoned Teufelsberg or “Devil’s Mountain” site, which was used to intercept East German and Soviet communications.

Heat maps show how activity in the US embassy's spying nest significantly reduced from 24 October (top picture) to 25 October, after it emerged that the US bugged Chancellor Merkel’s phone (ARD Panorama) Heat maps show how activity in the US embassy's spying nest significantly reduced from 24 October (top picture) to 25 October, after it emerged that the US bugged Chancellor Merkel’s phone (ARD Panorama)  

Equipment within the embassy unit would be capable of intercepting mobile phone calls, wi-fi data and long-distance communications across the German capital, including the adjacent government buildings such as the Reichstag and the Chancellery clustered around the Brandenburg Gate.

Last night GCHQ officials refused to discuss ongoing security matters.

Such is the critical importance of the network of embassy spying bases – the US version of which the NSA has codenamed “Stateroom” – that the NSA and the CIA have built a mock embassy-style site in woodland outside Washington DC to test their technology and train operatives.

Satellite images of the site in Maryland also show a white cylindrical structure in the grounds of the facility similar to the one on the roof of Britain’s Berlin embassy.

The NSA documents provided by Mr Snowden state that Stateroom-type operations are run by the US, Britain, Canada and Australia. Together with New Zealand, the countries form the “Five Eyes” at the core of an international eavesdropping coalition.

The US embassy, right, is becoming a focus in the current scandal over eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (NSA) on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel The US embassy, right, is becoming a focus in the current scandal over eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (NSA) on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Getty)
The NSA document outlining Stateroom describes it 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 briefing underlines the clandestine nature of the operation, adding: “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 “concealed collection system” within the embassies utilises “sheds” or structures with fake windows. The document said: “Collection equipment on a building is concealed so as not to reveal SIGINT activity... antennas are sometimes hidden in false  architectural features or roof maintenance sheds.”

German and US diplomatic relations have fallen to an unprecedented low since evidence emerged that the personal mobile of Mrs Merkel, who is known to conduct sensitive government business by phone and text message, was targeted by SCS. Intelligence officials from Germany are now in Washington negotiating an end to mass surveillance on German territory as well as a formal pact not to conduct spying operations on friendly nations. But any suggestion that Britain could also have intercepted the calls of German politicians or officials – even if only as part of a much wider sweep of the German capital – would prove damaging.

A separate leaked SCS document states that Stateroom and other facilities target mobile phones or wi-fi networks. The location of any equipment within the British embassy would make it unlikely that data from Mrs Merkel’s residence and offices would not have been collected.

The secret history: How Britain bugged the Soviets

Secret bugging operations similar to the British and American Berlin embassy operations have been making the news for more than 40 years.  

In 1971, American news columnist Jack Anderson reported that  NSA and GCHQ were successfully monitoring Soviet leaders’ radio links from Russian-made Zil limousines, producing streams of information about foreign policy and military intentions – but also revealing that the Soviet leaders “banter and bicker … and gossip”. “The leaders … complain about their ailments like old maids,”  he wrote.

As with the Snowden leaks, at the time the NSA claimed that the Anderson leak caused the Russians to shut down their use of limo phones.

This was not true – the Soviets just went on chattering. On 26 May 1972, according to released US documents, the embassy suites produced information that was vital to securing the East-West agreement not to use anti-missile missiles.

The Russians’ real response to the revelation was to blast both embassies with high intensity radio signals, in a failed attempt  to jam the receiving equipment. The radio onslaught provoked concerns for the health and  safety of both diplomats and spies.

DUNCAN CAMPBELL

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Business Development Manager / Sales

£30 - 40k (£65k Y1 OTE Uncapped): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Deve...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before