The scandal of high-level spying by the National Security Agency towards foreign citizens thanks to leaks by Edward Snowden, supposedly in the name of preventing terrorism, reached ironic levels in August. One of the nations leading in the outcry is Germany, claiming a complete breach of trust from the United States government through the NSA scandal. In response, German intelligence ordered a low-level helicopter flyover of the American consulate in Frankfurt, to determine how much the Americans were spying. The flyover's irony comes from the fact that the Americans complained about the German spying operation.
The order was confirmed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Interior Ministry in a statement Monday. The August 28 flyover was ordered by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's oddly-named domestic intelligence agency, and utilized a Eurocopter operated by federal police. The Frankfurt flyover happened at a very low altitude, about 200 feet above the ground. The purpose of the mission was to shoot high resolution photographs of the rooftops of the consulate, to determine if any of them have equipment for use in listening posts, presumably for the NSA.
Because this German helicopter operation was an intelligence-gathering operation, the Americans in Frankfurt were obviously not warned of it. Usually, when a helicopter does a flyover, the American consulate receives a notice from the local or federal police. Because of this blatant spying operation, the Frankfurt consulate's security looked surprised, and took pictures of the event, contacting the embassy in Berlin in the process. The following morning, deputy ambassador James D. Melville, Jr. contacted the German Foreign Ministry, and lodged a complaint about the flyover. Hopefully, the Germans asked him to define irony, and perhaps schadenfreude, in German.
The Frankfurt spying operation, first reported by local magazines last week, is obviously meant as a response to Edward Snowden's NSA revelations. In particular, what has drawn ire from many nations is the NSA establishing secret listening posts in 80 embassies and consulates around the world, a group known as the "Special Collection Service." The blatant nature of the operation may have made it as much political as intelligence-based: There are likely better and more subtle ways to find out which embassies or consulates have these listening posts. It also suggests that the German government was far more furious at the revelation than public appearances made it out to be. Still, it is good to see a nation stand up for itself and create an ironic situation out of it.