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Eavesdroping espionage

Wolfgang Dick / dbJuly 26, 2013

Is a new building under construction at US Army headquarters in Wiesbaden also designed to house NSA spies? There are rumors, but the army says the facility is strictly for military intelligence units.

Streetlamp in foreground, new building under construction in background Photo: Fredrik Von Erichsen/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

One of the US Army's most important facilities in Europe since the end of World War Two is in Wiesbaden, west of Frankfurt. During the Berlin blockade, this is where US planes took off in 1949 to supply Berlin with food, fuel and aid in what became known as the Berlin airlift. Today, the US Army in Europe (USAREUR) has its headquarters in Wiesbaden and is reportedly building a new military intelligence center that may also be used by the US National Security Agency (NSA.)

The chief of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND), Gerhard Schindler, is said to have disclosed the plans during a closed-door meeting of parliament's internal affairs committee. The BND, however, denied a subsequent German newspaper report on the planned surveillance outpost,and refused further comment.

The army applied for a building permit for the high-tech structure, the Consolidated Intelligence Center (CIC), in 2008. The building is expected to be completed by the end of 2015, and will cost 124 million euros ($163 million). In the wake of mounting outrage at disclosures that the NSA was spying on allied governments and their citizens, Wiesbaden Mayor Sven Gerich wanted more information on the new surveillance outpost at Clay Barracks. Gerich met earlier this week for four hours of talks with Colonel David Carstens, commander of the US garrison in Wiesbaden.

Sven Gerich.
Mayor Gerich held lengthy talks with the USImage: Pressereferat Wiesbaden

Friendly clarification

The US military did not react angrily when asked about a possible NSA presence, the Wiesbaden mayor told DW. They understand how sensitive the issue is in Germany, Gerich said: "Colonel Carstens literally told me, this is purely a US Army facility, not an NSA facility."

But how credible is this information? "I do not have the impression that Colonel Carstens was lying," the German mayor said, adding that the building was designed to house elements of a brigade currently at a base in Darmstadt. The US Army's military intelligence brigade is being given better working conditions and more space to gather information for the safety of US troops in Europe. Larger structures, including antennas are not planned, Mayor Gerich said and made it clear that the city is in no position to object, anyway.

The former monitoring base of the NSA in Bad Aibling, (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader) pixel
The former NSA monitoring base in Bad Aibling near MunichImage: picture alliance/AP Images

New openness

The meeting with the US military had an element of surprise, Gerich said. Media have reported the new surveillance structure in Wiesbaden will be completely sealed off, with access only by US personnel and even construction firms and material shipped from the US. However, it appears this secrecy is to be loosened somewhat by new information polices to accommodate concern among the population. Colonel Carstens offered to invite the media once construction of a good part of the surveillance center was finished. He wants people to realize that there are no subterranean facilities.

The NSA site in Griesheim near Darmstadt has quite a few underground, or secret, facilities. Intelligence groups formerly set up in the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling work at the so-called Dagger Complex. That facility was closed in 2004, due to political pressure by former Bavarian state premier Edmund Stoiber. There was concern American intelligence services were using the Echelon intelligence collection and analysis network at the Bad Aibling station for industrial espionage in Germany. "They did not just have an eye on the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq," German espionage expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom told Deutsche Welle.

Erich Schmidt-Eenboom Copyright: imago/Müller-Stauffenberg
Under certain circumstances the German government could have the site shut downImage: imago stock&people

Probably no NSA in Wiesbaden

According to the expert, the Griesheim units are predominantly involved in satellite tracking. Depending on intelligence priorities, satellites are repositioned in their orbit, and moved to cover new areas of a crisis. NSA experts help with the data analysis. "If it is true that the Griesheim unit is not being moved to Wiesbaden, the information the US colonel gave the mayor is correct: NSA staff will not be working in the new surveillance building," Schmidt-Eenboom said. The Wiesbaden mayor's office confirmed authorities always noted military intelligence units from Darmstadt would move to Wiesbaden, there was never mention of the NSA in Griesheim .

Schmidt-Eenboom pointed out, however, that should the US Army's information turn out to be false after all, the German government has the right to demand the site be shut down. Under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, intelligence installations are not meant to provide protection to one individual nation, but to all member states.

Computer image of Satellite Photo: Astrium GmbH dpa/lby +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Satellite trackers reposition satelitesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Should US spying activities actually target Germany, a difficult situation would arise - in theory. In reality, according to information spread by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, German and American intelligence services cooperate closely. Thus, and despite official disclaimers, experts are convinced NSA workers come and go at US bases across Germany.