In the summer of 1975, Willi Voss was left with few alternatives: prison, suicide or betrayal. He chose betrayal. After all, he had just been betrayed by the two men whom he had trusted, and whose struggle had forced him to lead a clandestine existence.
It was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's closest advisers who had used him and jeopardized his life: Abu Daoud, the mastermind behind the terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and Abu Iyad, head of the PLO intelligence service Razd.
Voss, a petty criminal from West Germany's industrial Ruhr region, in cahoots with Palestinian leaders who were feared around the world? It took a number of coincidences and twists of fate in Voss' life before he found himself in such a position, but here he was on a mission for the Palestinians -- in a Mercedes-Benz, traveling from Beirut to Belgrade, together with his girlfriend Ellen, so it would all look like a vacation trip.
His job was to deliver the car, Iyad and Daoud had said. But they had neglected to mention that the Mercedes contained automatic weapons, a sniper rifle and explosives, which were hidden in a secret compartment and consisted of a number of packages, each weighing 20 kilos (44 pounds) -- complete with fully assembled detonators made of mercury fulminate, a highly unstable substance. If Voss had gotten into an accident or hit a deep pothole, he, the car and his girlfriend would have been blown to pieces.
Voss only found out about his dangerous cargo when Romanian customs officials tore the vehicle apart. The only thing that saved the 31-year-old and his companion from ending up behind bars was the fact that the PLO maintained excellent ties with the Romanian regime. Romanian officials placed the two Germans in a car driven by a couple of pensioners from the Rhineland region, who were on their way back home to Germany after a vacation. Voss and his girlfriend hopped out in Belgrade. This was the end of the road for them -- and, as Voss recalls today, the day when they had to make a fateful decision: prison, suicide or betrayal?
Becoming a Defector
Prison: In Germany there was a warrant for Voss' arrest. A few years earlier, he had been taken into custody during a raid at the Munich home of a former SS officer who was in league with neo-Nazis. Investigators had secured weapons and explosives from the PLO along with plans for terror attacks and hostage-taking missions in Cologne and Vienna.
Suicide: Voss and his companion spent three days and nights in a tawdry hotel in Belgrade, where they continuously debated whether they should put an end to their lives. But they decided against this option as well.
That left only betrayal. Voss and his girlfriend went to the American embassy, demanded to speak to a diplomat and made the statements that would add yet another twist to his already eventful life: "I am an officer of Fatah. This is my wife. I'm in a position to make an interesting offer to your intelligence agency."
Voss became a defector. He went from being an accomplice of Palestinian terrorists to a member of the US intelligence agency -- from a handmaiden of terror to a CIA spy. As if his first life were not eventful enough, Voss opted for a second life: as a CIA spook with the codename "Ganymede," named after the kidnapped lover of Zeus, the father of the gods in Greek mythology.
His career as an undercover agent took him from Milan and Madrid back to Beirut and the headquarters of the PLO intelligence service. "Ganymede" provided information and documents that helped thwart attacks in the Middle East and Europe. Duane Clarridge, the legendary and infamous founder of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, even gave him the mission of catching top terrorist Carlos, "The Jackal."
Today, as he sits in a Berlin café and talks about his life, the gray-haired man clad in a black leather jacket appears at times bitingly ironic, at times shy and prone to depression -- making it all the more difficult to reconcile him with the daredevil who lived through this lunacy.
Voss, who was called Pohl until he adopted the name of his first wife, often says: "That's exactly how it was, but nobody believes it anyway" -- as if he himself had trouble tying together all the loose ends of his life to create a coherent biography. He is 68 years old and wants to get one thing straight: He has never been a neo-Nazi, he insists. "I was a stray dog -- one that had been kicked so often that it wanted to bite back, no matter how," says Voss. "If I had met Andreas Baader at the time," he contends, "I would have presumably ended up with the Red Army Faction."
It's a statement that only becomes plausible when one considers the other formative experiences of his life. He recounts that his childhood was marred by violence, sexual abuse and other humiliations. "As a child, I constantly faced situations in which I was completely powerless," says Voss, "and that triggered a naked fury, utter shame and the feeling that I was the most worthless thing in the world."
As a teenager, he sought to escape this world by joining a clique of young rowdies whose dares including stealing mopeds for joy rides. That got him a year in juvenile detention.
This could have led to a small, or even substantial, career as a criminal in the industrial Ruhr region. But in 1960, Voss met Udo Albrecht in prison, who later became a major figurehead in the German neo-Nazi scene. Albrecht fascinated his fellow prisoners with his dream of using mini submarines to smuggle in diamonds from the beaches of southwest Africa.
Yes, he actually believed this nonsense at the time, admits Voss. Politics didn't come into the picture until later on, he says, when the two jailbirds met in another prison in 1968. This time Voss was doing time for breaking and entering. "Albrecht talked and acted then like an unabashed Nazi," says Voss. But he says that this did nothing to diminish his friendship with the self-proclaimed leader of the "People's Liberation Front of Germany."
Hooking Up with the Palestinians
Voss' connection with the PLO began when he helped smuggle his buddy Albrecht out of prison in a container. The neo-Nazi slipped away to Jordan, where he hooked up with the Palestinians. When Daoud, the architect of the Munich massacre, asked him if he knew a reliable man in Germany, Albrecht recommended his prison pal from the Ruhr region.
Voss made himself useful. In Dortmund he purchased a number of Mercedes sedans for Daoud -- and he established contact to a passport forger in his circle of acquaintances. Today, Voss believes that he was even involved in the preparations for the Munich attack. For a number of weeks, he says, he drove the leader of Black September, a terrorist group with ties to the PLO, "all across Germany, where he met with Palestinians in various cities."
The Palestinians used him to handle other jobs, as well: "I was to hold a press conference in Vienna, in which I would comment on a mission that I would only find out about once it was successfully completed," as the PLO chief of intelligence Iyad had told him. When Voss saw the images on TV, he realized that the "mission" was the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Instead of securing the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as the hostage-takers had demanded, it ended in a bloodbath: Nine Israeli hostages, five Palestinian terrorists and one German policeman died.
Six weeks later, Voss was arrested in Germany. He had machine guns and hand grenades that stemmed from the same source as the weapons used by the Palestinian hostage-takers in Munich. This marked the beginning of wild negotiations initiated by Voss' lawyer Wilhelm Schöttler, who sent a letter with a "classified" offer to Federal Minister for Special Affairs Egon Bahr.
The offer was simple: Release Voss to allow for negotiations with Black September. The objective was to prevent further attacks on German soil. Today, it is known that high-ranking officials at the Foreign Ministry met with the lawyer, who was considered a right-wing radical, and discussed an ongoing series of demands until March 1974, when then-Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher decided to end the negotiations.
Looking for Carlos
Six days later, a court in Munich handed Voss a relatively mild prison sentence of 26 months for contravening the War Weapons Control Act.
In December of 1974, his sentence was suspended despite the fact that he was still under investigation on suspicion of being a member of Black September. In Feb. 1975, he slipped out of Germany and headed back to Beirut, where he was soon serving the Palestinian cause again -- right up until that big turning point in his life when he drove a car packed with weapons and explosives to the Romanian border in the summer of 1975.
Even today, one can sense the enormous respect that CIA veterans still have for their former German agent. "I've often wondered if he made it," says Terrence Douglas, "although we are trained to keep our distance and to forget everything after the job is done and move on."
Douglas, codename "Gordon," was Voss' commanding officer at the CIA. He has a very high opinion of his operative "Ganymede": "Willi was a very cool guy. He was creative and a bit crazy -- we spent a very, very intense time together."
It takes a healthy dose of courage to secretly photograph documents at the PLO intelligence service headquarters. "Ganymede" foiled attacks in Sweden and Israel, identified terror cells in diverse countries and supplied information on collaborations between the neo-Nazi Albrecht and his accomplices with Arafat's Fatah. And, as if all that were not enough, Voss lived next door to top terrorist Abu Nidal.
Surprisingly, though, the CIA agents stationed in Belgrade and Zagreb who Voss first met were not particularly thrilled with the young German. "They thought he was too boring," says Douglas with a laugh. "But they had no clue. They didn't know about the Black September list of people to be released with the hostage-taking at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Sudan in March 1973."
Refusing to Tell the Truth
Members of the terror organization had also sought the release of a German during their operation in Sudan: Willi Voss. "That was his reference," says Douglas. "That's the reason why we were excited by him."
The CIA made sure that Voss no longer had to fear being arrested in Germany. "It was clear to him that he couldn't continue with his previous lifestyle," says Douglas. "He wanted to survive and someday be able to settle again undisturbed in Germany," he recalls. "After all, he had a wife, and she had a 10-year-old kid. It was a package deal, I took care of them."
"As always in such situations, we informed the CIA office in Bonn, and they arranged everything with the BND or the BKA, depending on the situation," says spymaster Clarridge, referring to Germany's foreign intelligence agency and domestic criminal investigation agency respectively. Only a few weeks after the first meeting, the German arrest warrant had been rescinded.
Today, German authorities still refuse to tell the truth about these events. In the wake of revelations published in a June 2012 SPIEGEL article on the Munich massacre, Bavarian state parliamentarians Susanna Tausendfreund and Sepp Dürr of the Green Party demanded that the state government reveal "what documents from what Bavarian government agencies responsible at the time (exist) … on Willi Voss."
In late August 2012, the Bavarian Interior Ministry responded -- and it had a surprise. Ministry officials said that Voss had submitted a plea for clemency, which had received a positive response. "The content of this plea for clemency," they noted, however, was "classified." This is demonstrably false. Voss has never submitted a plea for clemency.
On the Terrace of an Athens Hotel
In any case, the deal certainly paid off for the Americans: Voss didn't disappoint them, even at risk of life and limb. In the fall of 1975, the Christian Phalange militia in Lebanon held him captive because they thought he was what he pretended to be -- a German member of Black September.
For weeks, Voss endured torture and mock executions without blowing his cover. For the CIA, this was a recommendation for an even riskier job. When Voss was released, he was told to hunt down Carlos, "The Jackal," who, as a terror mercenary employed by Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi, had stormed OPEC headquarters in Vienna, and was committing murders for Palestinian terror groups.
Voss traveled to Athens. On the terrace of a hotel with a view of the Acropolis, not only Douglas, but also Clarridge -- who had specially flown in from Washington -- were waiting to meet the daring German operative. In his memoirs, Clarridge described the meeting as follows: "Just hours before I had left headquarters at Langley on this trip, a very senior clandestine service officer asked to see me alone in his office on the seventh floor. He could be excruciatingly elliptical when he desired -- and this was such an occasion. Referring to my meeting with this agent in Athens, he hinted that if the agent could set up Carlos to be taken by a security service, it would be a boon for mankind and worth a bonus. I recall ten thousand dollars being mentioned. If Carlos were killed in the process, so be it. I acknowledged that I understood and left for Athens."
Voss' job was to find out where the Jackal was staying. But "Ganymede" lost his nerve this time. "Abu Daoud had told me that Carlos had a place in Damascus, not far from his own apartment," Voss recalls today. "If something had happened to him, the people at the PLO intelligence service would have automatically suspected me. I found that too risky."
'CIA Beats Nazi'
In retrospect, his CIA contact Douglas was extremely happy about this decision. On December 6, 2012, after meeting with SPIEGEL, he sent an e-mail to his former agent: "I was delighted to hear that you are ageing gracefully -- the alternative would have been unthinkable for me. ... Let me say, I hold you in deep respect for your courage, quickness, wry humor, dedication and trustworthiness." Douglas had written a book before he found out that Voss had survived his adventurous life. It's a novel about a "plot in the Middle East" entitled: "Ganymede".
Voss is also writing books; his third life. He specializes in crime thrillers and screenplays, having completed some 30 works since the late 1970s. But the author has never dared to tackle the most thrilling material of all -- his complete life story.
Now, he's telling the story for the first time. The German title of his book is "UnterGrund" ("Under Ground") and, according to the preface, readers should not expect "a written confession seeking forgiveness." Instead, he notes that "this is an account of events that, for security reasons, I thought I would have to keep secret forever." Voss intends to save his honor and provide an explanation for his actions. In order to report on the 1972 Munich massacre, last spring SPIEGEL had applied for the release of classified files and written two articles mentioning Voss' role in the attack. Afterwards, at least in the author's eyes, his reputation was in tatters.
He had told very few people about his first life. After everything was revealed, many of his supposed friends broke off all contact. The news that he had been involved with Palestinian terrorists turned out to be the lesser problem. The main issue was his proximity to neo-Nazis, which put an end to projects such as a planned anthology of crime thrillers, because some authors refused to continue collaboration "with a Nazi."
"I was suddenly so isolated that I seriously considered suicide," says Voss in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, as if this were a perfectly ordinary contemplation. But then, with the sarcasm of a man who has already survived greater disasters, he adds: "When I imagined what it would be like to pour gasoline all over myself in front of Chinese tourists on Pariser Platz and set myself on fire, I thought I could just as well tell the entire truth instead -- CIA beats Nazi."
BY KARIN ASSMANN, FELIX BOHR, GUNTHER LATSCH and KLAUS WIEGREFE