The NSA’s phone-tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel, the person in charge of Europe’s largest economy and the most powerful woman in the world, was a crisis for two close allies when it was reported in October of 2013.
But the story, one of the most consequential items to come from Edward Snowden’s leaked of about 200,000 government, now appears to rest on remarkably shaky ground.
Germany’s top public prosecutor says Berlin hasn’t found any evidence proving there ever was a tap on Merkel.
“There is no proof at the moment which could lead to charges that Chancellor Merkel’s phone connection data was collected or her calls tapped,” prosecutor Harald Range said, according to Reuters.
Furthermore, he noted that the “the document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database.”
Der Spiegel based its October 2013 story on research by reporters “in Berlin and Washington, talks with intelligence officials and the evaluation of internal documents of the US’ National Security Agency and other information, most of which comes from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.”
The report states that the tapping allegations was “suggested by a document that apparently comes from an NSA database in which the agency records its targets. This document, which SPIEGEL has seen, is what set the mobile phone scandal in motion.”
The paper stands by the Merkel phone story, saying that their reporters had access to information from an NSA database and confirmed that the NSA was tapping Merkel’s unencrypted phone. Der Spiegel acknowledges that the report was based on a copy of an NSA document (as opposed to an original from a database).
The situation is astonishing considering the stir that the Merkel phone tap caused at the time it was reported and its continuing impact on US-German relations.
“The German press has worked itself into a state of self-righteous hysteria; the German foreign minister is talking about severing alliances and suspending trade discussions,” author and columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in November of 2013, calling the controversy “the worst crisis in German-American relations in decades.”
In a profile of Merkel in the New Yorker this month, George Packer chronicled the still-unfolding consequences of the NSA revelation. “With the German public the sense of betrayal was deep … particularly because Obama, while promising that the eavesdropping had stopped, never publicly apologised,” Packer wrote. He reported that Germany asked for a “no-spy agreement” with the US and was refused.
This past July, Germany expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin after a bureaucrat for Germany’s intelligence service was caught passing documents to the Agency. The NSA uproar gave deeper public and political resonance to what would might have been an otherwise-minor incident. As Packer put it, “The spying scandals have undermined German public support for the NATO alliance just when it’s needed most in the standoff with Russia.”
They have also badly eroded a longstanding sense of trust in the US, forcing US and German officials to “agree to create a framework for clearer rules about spying and intelligence sharing.” Today, “barely half the German public now expresses a favourable view of the US — the lowest level in Europe, other than in perpetually hostile Greece.”
Now it turns out the precipitating event for one of the major developments in post-war trans-Atlantic relations might never have actually happened, raising uncomfortable questions about journalists who are close to Snowden.
The lead writer on the story was Jacob Appelbaum, an encryption activist who has been called the “American WikiLeaks Hacker” and is a close friend of American journalist and Der Spiegel contributor Laura Poitras. Poitras, who received a set of documents from Snowden, brought in Appelbaum in to vet Snowden.
In December 2013, Appelbaum and Poitras published a report with detailed information about the NSA’s elite TAO hackers and published a catalogue of tools, created by TAO’s technical expert division (known as ANT), used to hack into computers. In December 2012, Snowden threw a Crypto Party with Appelbaum’s former colleague at the Tor project, Runa Sandvik.
Amanda Macias contributed to this report.
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