For years, intelligence services from the US and Germany conducted a secret project on German soil. Together, they developed a counter-terrorism database -- with even a journalist coming under suspicion. By SPIEGEL Staff
Neuss, near Düsseldorf, is one of Germany's oldest cities. Schoolchildren are taught that the city dates back to the ancient Romans, who founded it in 16 B.C. Neuss was occupied by the French from 1794 to 1814, and by the British occupying force after World War II.
What no one knew until now, however, is that a small, select group of Americans were also stationed in the city on the Rhine River until a few years ago. Working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), they ran a project under a cloak of secrecy in an inconspicuous office building not far from the cobblestone streets of Neuss' pedestrian zone. It was a joint project with two German intelligence agencies, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND).
The Neuss undercover agents referred to their operation as "Project 6" or just "P6," and to this day only a few dozen German intelligence agents are even aware of the project. In 2005, as part of the fight against Islamist terrorism, the unit began developing a database containing personal information associated with what is believed to be thousands of people, including photos, license plate numbers, Internet search histories and telephone connection data. The information was intended to provide the intelligence agencies with a better understanding of the web of relationships among presumed jihadists.
From Germany's perspective, this raises the question of whether the US intelligence service, through its outpost in downtown Neuss, had direct access to data relating to German Islamists and their associates -- that is, to data relating to uninvolved third parties.
A Global Surveillance Network
The secret German-American project shows that the National Security Agency (NSA), in its thirst for information, wasn't the only US agency to establish a global surveillance network. In fact, Project 6 shows that the CIA also sought out strategic partners for the fight against terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
With the bombing attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 still fresh in their memories, the Germans didn't want to close their minds to the Americans' request. The Interior Ministry actively pursued cooperation, especially with US agencies. Then Interior Ministry state secretary August Hanning, who had previously headed the BND, sent a BfV go-between to Washington.
In keeping with this logic, the BND and the BfV still believe today that their clandestine database in the city on the Rhine was a legally flawless project. Some domestic and legal policy experts, when confronted with the basic elements of P6, are not quite as convinced, calling the P6 project a legal gray area.
The Neuss group, which operated under the aegis of then BfV President Heinz Fromm, was established on the initiative of the Americans, insiders say today. "The issue at the time was that we weren't cooperating with the Americans enough, whereas today we're accused of cooperating too much," says an intelligence agent familiar with the Neuss project. According to the agent, when the Americans presented the idea for the project to the Germans, they pointed out that it had already been introduced in other countries and was going very well. The CIA provided the computers and software that made up the core of the operation.
Identifying Potential Jihadist Informants
The software, a program called "PX," was designed to enable the spies to gain a better understanding of the environment in which presumed supporters of terrorism operated. The primary purpose of the information was apparently to identify potential informants in the jihadist community and approach them in a more targeted manner and with more prior knowledge. An insider explains that PX was never connected online, but instead was consistently treated as a self-contained unit within the network of agencies.
A series of events in 2010 exemplify the work of the group, which moved from Neuss to the BfV's Cologne headquarters after several years. In a letter dated May 6, 2010 and classified as "secret," the Americans requested information from the P6 analysts. They wanted a list of contacts Yemeni terrorists had in Germany. The CIA request was titled: "Potential operational targets for Project 6 -- German telephone numbers lined to Yemeni numbers associated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula."
The letter included a request to identify 17 German phone numbers that had been used to contact the "suspicious" Yemeni numbers. "If possible, our agency would appreciate any dates of birth, or passport information, your servers may be able to obtain for the subscribers of the German phones," the CIA request read.
And the Germans delivered. "Our agency greatly appreciates your Service's information on the subscribers of German telephones found possibly associated with AQAP [al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula]-related Yemeni numbers," the Americans wrote effusively on June 29, 2010.
Letter of the Law Not Always AppliedThe American search request suggests that the letter of the law is not always applied in the war on terror. Among the individuals identified by the intelligence agencies was Stefan Buchen, a journalist with North German Broadcasting (NDR). As the CIA agents wrote in their letter, Buchen's telephone number had been "identified due to its association with Abdul Majeed al-Zindani," a radical cleric in Yemen who the United States believed was a key supporter of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The Americans do not describe what exactly the reporter's "association" to the red-bearded Islamist was. But even if there was such an association, it should be relatively easy to explain. The NDR journalist has been conducting research in Arab countries for many years. He was in Yemen in 2010 to track down two Germans who young Muslims from Germany had been instructed to smuggle into radical Koran schools in Yemen. Buchen was doing his research into the isolated environment of Islamists, canvassing their mosques in the capital Sana'a. In the end, he did manage to find one of the two men.
Buchen was a "journalist from Hamburg who specializes in investigative journalism on terrorism," the CIA officials claimed, including his passport number and date of birth in their letter. They also wrote that "our agency believes Buchen may have visited Afghanistan multiple times in the past five years."
The BfV, which considers its collaboration with other agencies to be "in need of secrecy," assures that such projects are conducted "exclusively on the basis of the provisions of German law." At least the BND confirms the existence of P6, but it also notes that the cooperative venture ended in 2010. It was "not a project to monitor telecommunications traffic," and the German agencies had consistently acted "on the basis of their legal authority."
'Significant Security Interests'
In fact, Section 19 of the German Act on the Protection of the Constitution prohibits the release of personal data to foreign agencies, even if they can claim "significant security interests." But the law also states that the intelligence service requires a so-called file order "for every automated file." In addition, before such an order can come into effect, the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information must be consulted.
Peter Schaar, who has held this office for almost 10 years, is unaware of any of this. "I have no knowledge of such a database, nor was any of this reported to me in the context of a file order," says Germany's top data privacy official. If the database had been declared, he adds, he would probably have objected. In Schaar's opinion, a construct like P6 is "at least comparable with the counter-terrorism file," a collection of data about suspicious terrorist structures, to which dozens of German government agencies have had access since 2007. "Anyone who conducts such a project would certainly have to guarantee that all activities are fully documented and subjected to a data privacy review," says Schaar.
Another supervisory body was also seemingly kept in the dark about Project 6. Several longstanding members of the parliamentary control committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, cannot recall having been informed about a jointly organized exchange of data involving the BfV, the BND and the CIA -- neither in Neuss nor in any other secret location. By law, the German government is required to inform the committee about "events of special importance" -- a phrase that remains open to interpretation.
A Productive German-American Collaboration
Security experts among the opposition, at any rate, are irritated. The committee has met several times since the NSA affair began, and representatives of the government and the intelligence services were repeatedly asked about the nature and scope of cooperation with the Americans and British. However, the term "P6" was never mentioned. "The administration should have informed us about this, at least within the last three months," says Left Party politician Steffen Bockhahn, "if this isn't an especially important procedure, what then?"
Even the termination of Project 6 has had no effect on the productive German-American collaboration. Last year, the BfV alone sent 864 data sets to the CIA, NSA and seven other US intelligence agencies.
They returned the favor in the same year by sending the Germans information on 1,830 occasions. It included communications data, which the Americans had intercepted in the arenas of global jihad and, with the help of the BND, forwarded to the German domestic intelligence service. The BfV stores relevant telephone data in a state-of-the-art IT system. A program called Nadis WN, created in June 2012, is accessible to the BfV and its 16 state agencies.
The functions of the P6 software are apparently also integrated into this program. Officially, no one on the German side knows what happened to the data from the project that was sent from the United States.
BY MATTHIAS GEBAUER, HUBERT GUDE, VEIT MEDICK, JÖRG SCHINDLER and FIDELIUS SCHMID
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH