BERLIN — The German Foreign Intelligence Agency has admitted tapping “at least one” phone call each by current Secretary of State John Kerry and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while they were aboard United States government jets, according to German media reports.
The reports claim Kerry’s intercepted communication was a satellite phone call from the Middle East in 2013. Clinton’s communication was also a satellite call, in 2012, and was reportedly to then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Both calls were reported to have been intercepted accidentally while German intelligence was targeting terror suspects in the Middle East and nothern Africa.
The intelligence agency (the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND) told German media that terror groups often use the same frequencies that the secretaries phone calls were made over, so the calls were picked up. The calls were among what the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung said intelligence sources described as several cases of U.S. official phone calls being picked up accidentally during anti-terror communications monitoring.
The BND is the German equivalent of the American Central Intelligence Agency. German-American relations have chilled in the past year _ since former National Security worker Edward Snowden began leaking documents detailing the extent of America’s global electronic spying and eavesdropping programs. Media reports about Snowden’s leaked documents led to the revelation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s private cell phone had been tapped, since the years when she was a lower ranking German minister and continuing at least until the summer of 2013.
The spy scandal includes the electronic spying on millions of private emails and electronic communications, the tapping of official phones and even the hiring of German officials to act as American agents and pass on secret German government information.
The news reports outraged Germans, leading to favorable attitudes about the United States falling to their lowest levels in years and creating a public and private sense of mistrust. Merkel has repeatedly called the U.S. spy program a breach of trust and noted that “friends don’t spy on friends.”
In a twist that connects this tale to the broader spying scandal, the new reports note that after Clinton’s phone call was picked up, an order from the BND leadership was sent out to delete the communication. But the German charged with deleting the conversation was Markus R, who has been charged with selling 218 secret official documents to U.S. intelligence, and he instead of deleting the conversation sold the transcript to his American contacts. Markus R, who under German law cannot be fully identified unless he is convicted, allegedly made a total of 25,000 euro, or about $32,500, by selling the documents to the CIA.
He has been charged with Spying for a Foreign Intelligence Agency.
The BND denied that there was any systematic phone tapping of U.S. officials, though admitted other phone calls had been swept up. German intelligence officials have told German media that the frequencies the American officials use are also favorites of terror groups in northern Africa and the Middle East.
Both Kerry’s and Clinton’s phone calls were picked up while they were flying over conflict areas. The German phone tapping program in the Middle East is well known to U.S. officials. During the Syrian conflict, and particularly after the chemical weapons attacks of August 2013, there was quite a bit of discussion of Syrian official conversations picked up by German intelligence.
In the past, German officials insist, when U.S. official conversations were intercepted, those intercepting the calls would contact their superiors who then checked with the BND President’s office and in every case the result was an order to destroy the tape and transcript.
But German intelligence officials told German media this weekend that they have been under a standing order since last summer from the Chancellors’ office to immediately destroy any such intercepted conversations, without waiting for approval. It is not known if Kerry’s intercepted communication came before or after this order.