German spy agency nabbed phone calls by Kerry, Clinton

Spy outfit accidentally recorded calls by current and former US secretaries of state, says report, an awkward revelation given Germany's outcry over NSA.

CNET News staff
2 min read

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office last year. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Germany's foreign intelligence service recorded phone calls made by US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as former secretary Hillary Clinton, according to reports by German news agencies, a potentially embarrassing revelation given the European country's outcry last year over US spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German news weekly Der Spiegel reported Saturday that Germany's BND spy agency recorded at least one satellite phone conversation involving Kerry while it was monitoring calls in the Middle East in 2013. The publication also said the BND had recorded a call between former Secretary of State Clinton and former United Nations head Kofi Annan in 2012 (the Clinton news had been reported Friday by a German broadcaster and newspaper).

Citing unnamed security sources, Der Spiegel reported that the intercepted calls were accidental "bycatch," and a spokeswoman for the BND told Reuters that Germany had not targeted the US or other allied countries. She also said "any accidental recordings are deleted immediately."

Reports late last year that the US National Security Agency had targeted German Chancellor Merkel led to a damage-control phone call between Merkel and President Barack Obama and eventually to further reassurances in a high-profile Obama speech about reform of the NSA.

In that speech, Obama announced that he had issued a presidential directive to the intelligence community saying that "unless there is a compelling national security purpose -- [the US] will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies."

At the time of the Merkel reports, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the outcry, saying at a congressional hearing that spying on the heads of foreign governments -- or, as he put it, monitoring of "leadership intentions" -- was a "hardy perennial" of the intelligence trade. He also answered "absolutely" when asked if US allies had spied on the states.

Regarding Saturday's Der Spiegel report on the Kerry and Clinton calls, the US State Department told Reuters that it declined to comment, and a German government spokesman said it was up to a parliamentary committee to address the accusations. The Associated Press said the BND hadn't immediately replied to a request for comment.