New NSA Revelations Inside Snowden's Germany File
Part 3: Collection Sites in Germany
Is it possible that the German government really knew nothing about all of these NSA activities within Germany? Are they really -- as they claimed in August 2013 in response to a query from the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- "unaware of the surveillance stations used by the NSA in Germany"?
That is difficult to believe, especially given that the NSA has been active in Germany for decades and has cooperated closely with the country's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, which is overseen by the Chancellery. A top-secret NSA paper from January 2013 notes: "NSA established a relationship with its SIGINT counterpart in Germany, the BND-TA, in 1962, which includes extensive analytical, operational, and technical exchanges."
When the cooperation with its junior partner from West Germany began, the NSA was just 10 years old and maintained stations in Augsburg and West Berlin in addition to its European headquarters in Stuttgart-Vaihingen.
American intelligence agencies, like those of the three other World War II victors, immediately began to monitor Germans within their zones of occupation, as confirmed by internal guidelines relating to the evaluation of reports stemming from the years 1946 to 1967.
In 1955, the British and French reduced their surveillance of Germans and focused on operations further to the east. The Americans, however, did not and continued to monitor telephone and other transmissions both within Germany and between the country and others in Western Europe. By the mid 1950s, US spies may have been listening in on some 5 million telephone conversations per year in Germany.
The easternmost NSA surveillance post in Europe during the Cold War was the Field Station Berlin, located on Teufelsberg (Devil's Mountain) in West Berlin. The hill is made from the rubble left over from World War II -- and the agents operating from its top were apparently extremely competent. They won the coveted Travis Trophy, awarded by the NSA each year to the best surveillance post worldwide, four times.
'A Perpetual State of Domination'
Josef Foschepoth, a German historian, refers to German-American relations as "a perpetual state of domination." He speaks of a "common law developed over the course of 60 years" allowing for uncontrolled US surveillance in Germany. Just how comprehensive this surveillance was -- and remains -- can be seen from the so-called SIGAD lists, which are part of the Snowden archive. SIGAD stands for "Signal Intelligence Activity Designator" and refers to intelligence sources that intercept radio or telephone signals. Every US monitoring facility carries a code name made up of letters and numbers.
Documents indicate that the Americans often opened new SIGAD facilities and closed old ones over the decades, with a total of around 150 prior to the fall of the Wall. The technology used for such surveillance operations has advanced tremendously since then, with modern fiber-optic cables largely supplanting satellite communications. Data has become digital, making the capture of large quantities of it far easier.
The Snowden documents include a 2007 list that goes all the way back to 1917 and includes the names of many former and still active US military installations as well as other US facilities that are indicated as sites of data collection. It notes that a number of the codes listed are no longer in operation, and a deactivation date is included for at least a dozen. In other instances, the document states that the closing date is either unknown or that the SIGADs in question are still in operation. These latter codes include sites in Frankfurt, Berlin, Bad Aibling and Stuttgart -- all places still known to have an active NSA presence.
Because Americans tended to monitor their targets themselves, Germany's BND long had little to offer, creating a largely one-sided relationship in which the Germans played the subservient role. Only at the beginning of the last decade did the nature of the cooperation begin to change, partially as a result of the BND's successful effort to massively upgrade its technical abilities, as an internal NSA document notes approvingly. But the pecking order in the relationship has remained constant.
The former East Germany appears to have been better informed about the NSA's spying activities than Berlin currently claims to be. The NSA's work was known to the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), East Germany's foreign intelligence agency, a unit of the Ministry for State Security, the secret police more commonly known as the "Stasi." One internal Stasi document noted of the NSA: "This secret intelligence service of the USA saves all radio signals, conversations, etc., around the globe from friends and foes."
At the beginning of 1990, right after the Berlin Wall fell, HVA officers delivered around 40 binders with copies of NSA documents -- obtained by two spies -- to the Stasi's central archive. The HVA officers wanted to preserve the highly controversial material for historians and others who might be interested in it.
Not Enough for the USA
After US diplomats were informed by the German Federal Prosecutor of the documents' existence, Washington began applying pressure on the German government to hand over the NSA files. Finally, in July 1992, employees of the German agency responsible for executing the Stasi archive handed "two sealed containers with US documents" over to the German Federal Border Guard, which in turn delivered them to the Interior Ministry. Once in possession of them, the Americans used the files as evidence in the trial against a former NSA employee who had spied for East Germany.
Apparently the first haul of documents wasn't enough for the NSA. In 2008, during Merkel's first term in office, several NSA employees visited the Stasi archives to view all the remaining documents -- from the Stasi's Main Department III, which was responsible for signals intelligence -- containing information about US facilities.
The German Interior Ministry classified and blocked access to most of the material and they are no longer viewable by journalists or researchers. By the time Edward Snowden began publishing the NSA documents last year, only two files pertaining to the NSA remained available for viewing, and both were filled with harmless material. It is unlikely the remaining historical documents will be much help to the federal prosecutors now investigating the NSA.
But one person who could potentially contribute to clarifying the NSA's role in Germany was in Munich this week. General Keith Alexander, who recently left his position as NSA chief, spoke at a conference organized by Deutsche Telekom on Monday night. When officials at the Federal Prosecutor's Office were asked days before his keynote speech whether they would try to question Alexander as a witness, they, responded by saying, "We do not conduct criminal investigative proceedings publicly."
It seems Germany's chief federal investigator may ultimately follow the dictum given by Foschepoth: "The German government is more concerned about keeping the Americans happy than it is about our constitution."
By Sven Becker, Hubert Gude, Judith Horchert, Andy Müller-Maguhn, Laura Poitras, Ole Reißmann, Marcel Rosenbach, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid, Michael Sontheimer and Holger Stark
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey