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Der Spiegel journalists on walking the fine line between informing the public and compromising NSA intelligence

BY Margaret Warner  February 6, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT

BERLIN — Just east of the old dividing line between East and West Berlin, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, lies Pariser Platz in what is now one of the toniest parts of the new Berlin. On its south — the huge new American Embassy, with its rooftop terrace views of the Reichstag and the German Chancellery, which opened with much fanfare in 2008. Directly across from it — the offices of a magazine whose revelations of NSA surveillance have generated more heartburn in the U.S.-German relationship than anything since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The magazine is Der Spiegel, known for investigative journalism since its founding after World War II. Beginning last June, with access to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, a team of Der Spiegel writers and editors has unleashed a steady stream of deeply reported stories about NSA surveillance of German and European institutions, officials and citizens.

Then in October, came two blockbusters: that the NSA was monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ever-present cell phone, and days later, that U.S. spying on German government entities and officials emanated from “the NSA’s secret spy hub in Berlin” atop the U.S. embassy.

Merkel responded angrily, publicly comparing it to decades of spying by East Germany’s hated Stasi secret police, and calling President Obama to demand an explanation.

Although Berlin has been a hotbed of espionage for decades, the locale for dozens of spy novels and movies – “Torn Curtain,” “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “The Bourne Identity” and “The Lives of Others” — the German public was shocked by the surveillance of their Chancellor’s cell phone.

There’s been serious economic and diplomatic fallout too — calls in Germany to restrict U.S. internet company operations there and demands by the Merkel government for a no-spy understanding between the two longtime allies.

The American Embassy in Berlin, right, can be seen right next to the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament. Photo by Eric O'Connor

The American Embassy in Berlin can be seen right next to the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament. Photo by Eric O’Connor

The Der Spiegel writers who’ve continued to break these stories haven’t said much publicly, preferring to let their work speak for itself. But on our last reporting day in Berlin last week, as darkness fell in the Platz, we went to the magazine’s offices to speak with two of the team’s lead journalists: 43-year-old Holger Stark and 41-year-old Marcel Rosenbach. Both have spent their careers reporting on national security, intelligence, terrorism and the internet, among other topics.

Investigative journalists can be a zealous lot, so I half-expected to find that quality in Rosenbach and Stark. After all, Der Spiegel’s editorial board is now campaigning to have Edward Snowden granted asylum in Germany.

Instead I found two journalists who appear to have thought deeply about what they’re doing. They said they wrestle constantly with how to walk the fine line between generating an informed debate about how much surveillance is acceptable in a free society, and not endangering NSA methods that they know have thwarted terrorist attacks aimed at the US, and its German and European allies.

Rosenbach and Stark described the meticulous process they use to understand what’s really contained in a Snowden document, consulting former U.S. intelligence officials, experts in Congress and other U.S. agencies, tech wizards at internet giants like Google, former hackers, and the NSA itself. In fact, they said, before publishing any story, they run the gist of it by NSA headquarters at Fort Meade and invite comment, correction and NSA requests to not report some aspects at all.

Just last week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper again decried the “profound damage” inflicted by the Snowden disclosures. “Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods and trade craft and the insights they are gaining are making our job much, much harder,” he said.

In reply, Stark and Rosenbach say they take special care not to jeopardize — in their view — valuable intelligence procedures or operations in their reporting. “The question if we compromised legitimate intelligence methods is one that we have asked ourselves many times,” said Stark. “If you go through the reporting that we did you won’t find anything that is related to counterterrorism because we see the approach of the security and authorities to try to disrupt possible plots as a legitimate point.” They try to focus on where they see “the core values of a public democracy” in danger, he said, as in “if people fear that their smart phone is under surveillance … they can’t speak freely anymore.”

But it remains an open question; can the public be given enough information to debate the trade-off between privacy and security, without jeopardizing critical intelligence capabilities? That’s an issue that in this digital age affects U.S. all.