Home inSight “Gotcha”


Spying on the Americans

Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, reported that Israel spied on Secretary of State John Kerry’s phone calls while Kerry was in Paris with representatives of Qatar and Turkey, trying to arrange a ceasefire for Gaza. It appears straightforward. Kerry, says Der Spiegel, was using “open,” non-encrypted phone lines as he worked the truce deal and was using a mobile phone for many of the discussions. Israeli intelligence bugged his calls.

Oddly, though, there is no source for the story, no confirmation, just the old standby of “reliable sources.” And the story isn’t actually about Israel.

Der Spiegel is not the National Enquirer. Why would a serious German magazine, which has been one of the strongest voices in opposition to American phone tapping, put out an unsourced story such as this? One can hardly imagine anyone in Israel leaking such an explosive tidbit to a German magazine, and no magazine would take a story like this without confirmation, something that Der Spiegel either didn’t get, or didn’t share with its readers.

Could it just be conjecture? When a reporter saw the Secretary of State of the United States running around with a mobile phone, making calls in the middle of very delicate ceasefire negotiations, he might have guessed that foreign intelligence services would seize the opportunity to intercept the conversations. No hardware or software “bug” would be needed, just some commercially available tools — such as “Stingray,” a device that intercepts calls by “tricking” cellphones into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting to law enforcement rather than the phone company. Alternatively, if the calls were placed over international phone lines, as Kerry’s may have been, intelligence services could easily have picked them off as they transited points in their countries. But if the story is no more than a surmise, why would a reputable magazine such as Der Spiegel run it as if it was true? It breaks all the rules of responsible journalism.

And if the reporter was trying to illustrate how easy it would be to listen in on a foreign call, why would he have said Israel actually tapped the phones? Israel is today’s all-purpose scapegoat, but this still seems like a stretch.

There have been many well-documented stories about Edward Snowden and his leaks of sensitive NSA information appearing in the pages of Der Spiegel, including the fact that the United States was tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phones. Other stories include how the U.S. tapped into international fiber optic cables carrying phone calls and Internet traffic. This particular story, however, stands apart from all the others because it appears to come out of thin air — unless the reader begins from a different angle, at which point the story contains a hint. In fact it contains a giveaway.

Der Spiegel notes that along with Israel, one other, unnamed, foreign intelligence service bugged Secretary Kerry’s calls. Now who could that be?

Certainly not NSA or CIA; they might perfectly well be doing it, but they would not be talking to Der Spiegel, so Der Spiegel did not mean them. Could it have been the Russians or Chinese, the British or the French or the Italians? Of course it could be any of them, but the likelihood of any of them talking to a German newsmagazine about it is no greater than the chances of the CIA talking about it.

So who is the mystery intelligence service? We, unlike Der Spiegel, have a source and our source is Der Spiegel itself. Reading what was written and what was withheld, in our view, Der Spiegel would feel comfortable with this story only if it came from Germany’s own intelligence service, the BND.

Why would the BND cooperate?

BND officials have been deeply embarrassed by their CIA and NSA colleagues operating behind their backs at the same time that there was close cooperation between the intelligence services on several important issues. The American spy agencies were listening in on German government officials and even tapped Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone — presumably a “secure” one approved, if not purchased for her by the BND. Certainly those BND officials didn’t find it terribly pleasant explaining to Mrs. Merkel the breach of security perpetrated by their American allies.

The German government — from Mrs. Merkel down — has let it be known it will no longer play “Mr. Nice Guy” to the United States and, in fact, will operate on a tit for tat basis.

The leak to Der Spiegel is not about Israel at all. Israel is a good foil because of its well-known and highly successful cyber operations. BND, however, is responding to American phone tapping in the most direct way it can. “Look guys,” it is saying, “Your leaders are not immune and even the Israelis know your most important secrets. And, guys, if you look a little closer, you can guess that we did it too. Gotcha from your friends in Germany. “