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.