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Germans wonder if U.S. Embassy is center of spy program

BERLIN – When the new American Embassy opened here five years ago, there was more than a little grousing. The building was boring, critics argued, and looked to be more about keeping the rest of the world away than projecting an image. Locals worried that reopening the embassy in the very heart of a reunified Berlin, in a reunified Germany, would make the iconic surroundings less accessible.

But there was little talk about the top floor of the embassy, and the antennas atop it.

Until now.

This weekend, the latest issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel has a cover photo with a creepy Cold War feel to it of what’s atop the embassy, under the headline “Das Nest.”

The magazine analyzes the top floor of the building. It focuses on the gray box-like rooms on the top that appear to have stone-colored windows. The magazine found experts and journalists who postulated that such an appearance is likely hiding highly sensitive spy equipment. They note that documents indicate the embassy’s top floors are home to a joint National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency spy program.

And a steady stream of news reports on how the Americans had been spying on the German political class, including now three-term Chancellor Angela Merkel, pinpointed the top floor of the embassy.

The embassy is, without a doubt, a building at the very heart of this nation, residing just a block from the Reichstag, the federal government’s home, in an honored place that has made sense to Germans. The United States, after all, is considered such a staunch and worthy ally.

But then the spy scandal erupted with the release by former NSA worker Edward J. Snowden of records that indicated the United States was sweeping up hundreds of millions of electronic communications. The documents he released indicated the NSA was studying emails with key words or phrases and recording so-called “metadata” from smart phones, information tracking the movement and actions of phone owners. The embassy became the focus of an occasional protest, the slogan “United Stasi of America” projected from across the street onto its walls.

Hans-Christian Stroebele, the longest serving member of Germany’s Bundestag intelligence committee, made a point of saying that Merkel announced, and Germans believed, soon after the scandal broke that this horrible tale had ended. That the scandal instead has intensified is deeply disturbing. He admitted it’s a deep rift. Fixing it would require the Obama administration to “put all facts on the table and put an end to the spying immediately, and rule out a repetition in the future.”

In Berlin, a city so recently tortured by the information-stealing Stasi intelligence organization of East Germany, and before that by the Gestapo’s brutal use of information in Nazi Germany, such allegations cut deeply.

But in the past week, the anger has increased. The reason is simple: Germans might not appreciate the means but are as anti-terrorism as any people and could understand the motives. But tapping the cellphones of their chancellor and other political leaders clearly has nothing to do with anti-terror efforts.

Joerg Wolf, editor in chief and a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Community, a Berlin-based think tank, said the secondary defense of the American spy policy – after it became clear that spying on the heads of 35 nations isn’t about anti-terror activities – is that “everybody does it.” But he said he doesn’t buy that, either.

“I am convinced that Germany (since 1945) has never tried to bug a U.S. president,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t have the capabilities. And we are far too cautious to take the risk. Besides, the concrete benefits for us would be limited. And it’s just plain wrong.”

Meanwhile, Spain became the latest U.S. ally to demand answers after Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that the NSA monitored more than 60 million phone calls in that country during one month alone.

As possible leverage against the U.S. program, German authorities cited last week’s non-binding resolution by the European Parliament to suspend a post-9/11 agreement allowing the Americans access to bank transfer data to track the flow of terrorist money.