Ghosts of the NSA: Relics of Cold War Spying Dot Germany

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Photo Gallery: A Forest of Antennas Photos
REUTERS

The National Security Agency has long been active in Germany, though much of its spying was conducted against the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Today, former listening stations and other facilities dot the German landscape.

Tracking down traces of the National Security Agency in Germany isn't particularly difficult. One merely has to head to Berlin and look for the city's highest point. It can be found in the southwest corner of the city -- Teufeslberg, or "Devil's Mountain." Made of piled up rubble gathered from Berlin following World War II, the "mountain" rises 115 meters (377 feet) above the nearby waterway known as the Havel.

In the winter, it is the place where Berliners meet to sled; in the summer it is a haven for mountain bikers and daytrippers. And hobby historians: At the very top of the hill stands the most famous NSA relict in Germany -- five gigantic white radar balls. The listening station was used until the end of the Cold War, primarily to spy on the east.

Teufelsberg used to be part of the NSA's global espionage network called Echelon, which the US intelligence service used to keep an eye on Moscow. From 1957 to 1991, the NSA maintained a presence on Teufelsberg and eavesdropped on satellite-based telephone conversations, filtered fax reports and analyzed Internet datasets. The NSA was still doing all that in 2013, as SPIEGEL recently reported, but it no longer requires the massive radar towers.

Desolate and in Disrepair

Today, the artificial hill looks desolate. When the Americans withdrew, the listening station began to fall into disrepair. The covering on the radomes is torn in many places, and inside the facility weeds are growing out of the debris.

But it's not just weather and age that have led the buildings to deteriorate. Shortly after the turn of the century, the government of the city-state of Berlin decided that guarding the empty facility had become too expensive. It then became the target of regular break-ins and vandalism. Rotraud von der Heide, an artist and the curator of the Initiative Teufelsberg, a group seeking to preserve the facility, says, "the facility is totally destroyed because private owners weren't able to carry out their construction plans, and now the building permits have expired. For the past year-and-a-half, two young people have been leasing it." Originally, a conference hotel had been envisioned for the site, but those plans ultimately failed.

Those leasing the site are now responsible for security at the facility. Using revenues generated through frequent tours, they are financing the constant repairs required for the fence surrounding property. "New holes are cut in the fence every night, and we turn trespassers over to the police," said von der Heide. "Earlier, people had parties in the facility. There were also copper thieves who ripped wires out of the walls. That's no longer possible now."

Big Plans

The initiative has big plans for the hill. During Germany's "Day of Open Monuments," in September, they plan to open the former listening station to the public for three days.

By then, von der Heide plans to completely transform the area into one giant artwork. "The hill is becoming more and more fantastic. It's a magical art space that is constantly changing," the artist says. That's also a product of anonymous graffiti artists whose paintings cover the massive walls and the insides of the radomes, she says.

A second NSA listening station in Germany, located some 200 kilometers to the west -- represents the opposite extreme. Whereas the Teufelsberg radomes were difficult to ignore, the facility in Schöningen, near Braunschweig, was more hidden. Mayor Henry Bäsecke says that there was an American facility in the nearby forest consisting of "containers and large antennas. But the facility has since been torn down. "There's nothing left here, and nature is slowly reconquering the property," Bäsecke says.

At Least 17 Surveillance Hubs at Cold War Peak

Some 50 kilometers south of Munich is yet another listening post of note. Bad Aibling the southernmost facility in a chain of such espionage centers operated in Germany by US intelligence agencies. In 1989, shortly before the end of the Cold War, SPIEGEL counted 17 such surveillance hubs. But it's a figure that may have been even higher. The network extended from the town of Schleswig near the Danish border right down to the edge of the Alps. Most of the facilities were located close to the former border between West and East Germany, as close as possible to the enemy.

In Bad Aibling, the outsized radomes of the disused listening station also dominate the landscape. In 2004, the Americans left, but Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, continues to operate nearby. The 17,000 resident city is hard at work transforming the 134 hectare (331 acre) property for civilian use. The community has already turned a small part of the property into sporting facilities, Peter Schmid of the city administration says. Here, local teams play football in the shadows of the radomes. The rest is to be built up by a property developer, with plans for a zero-energy settlement to be constructed.

Still, the area's eventful history hasn't been forgotten. Since 2009, it has hosted an annual electro- and house-music festival that attracted 17,000 fans last year to revel between the radar towers and a former aircraft hangar. The name of the two-day festival recalls the American spy network: The Echelon festival.

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