Britain’s ambassador Simon McDonald was called in by the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle after allegations emerged that a secret listening post is operating from its embassy in Berlin, just yards from the German parliament and Angela Merkel’s offices.
Mr McDonald met senior officials and was bluntly warned that any interception of data by intelligence services from a diplomatic facility would be in violation of international law.
It is believed to be the first time that Germany has called in a UK ambassador in this way since the end of the Second World War.
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency whistleblower, suggest that the UK is operating an “intercept nest” from the roof of its embassy. After the claims received widespread attention in the German media, the Foreign Minister, Mr Westerwelle, requested a statement from the ambassador.
Mr McDonald, formerly David Cameron’s foreign policy adviser and head of foreign and defence policy in the Cabinet Office, relayed the conversation back to London.
Last month the US ambassador received an official complaint following revelations about a listening post on top of the American embassy that was intercepting calls from Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone. The US and UK embassies are just yards apart, close to the Bundestag and the Chancellery, Mrs Merkel’s prime ministerial offices.
Downing Street sought to play down the scale of the rift, with David Cameron’s spokesman insisting Mr McDonald had been “invited”, to the ministry. The spokesman said Mr Cameron had an “excellent” relationship with both Ms Merkel and her government, and that it would continue.
But a senior British diplomat who recently worked at the Berlin embassy took a different view of events, calling the spying claims and their aftermath “acutely embarrassing”. He said: “The problem is that because one can’t discuss what is being done, it’s easy to draw the worst possible inference.
“All I can say is that we have excellent intelligence-sharing with Germany and we don’t want that to be damaged by this. However, if this leads to better dialogue on this issue, then at least something positive has happened.”
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.