Surveillance has a long history in Berlin, which might be why Berliners have been so touchy about the Snowden affair. But then again, we know now that Germany’s relations with the NSA have always been unhealthily intimate. This article appeared in Exberliner‘s September 2014 edition.
As tour guides go, Bernie is a bit eccentric. Unshaven and chain-smoking, the ageing Berliner leads people round the smashed, leaky ruin on the Teufelsberg explaining things in a sarcastic tone that keeps you constantly unsure whether the things he says are true. He spent 16 years guarding the Devil’s Mountain when it was an Allied military field station, and his favourite parts of the tour are when he can hint mysteriously at the decadence and destruction that used to go on when the Cold War ended. He stops next to a pile of warped wheels and cracked metal inside a lift shaft. “See this? I helped cut the cables once,” he says, as if telling a that-was-some-party story. “We did it to block off the lower floors.” What used to happen on the lower floors? “No, not telling you that. That stays down there.” Then he cackles, puts a finger up to his toothless mouth, and makes a very serious face.
Teufelsberg is a godforsaken place where man-made plans usually come to nothing – Albert Speer’s military academy, whose foundation stone was laid here by Hitler, was stopped mid-construction by the Second World War. David Lynch’s “New Age University” nearby was never given planning permission. And all that’s left of the luxury apartments planned for the disused military listening station is some parquet flooring in the decrepit show room. Even Bernie’s lift-destroying debauchery was ended by the authorities.
So now there are only the tours, conducted by the fascinating, inscrutable people who used to work here. Out on the roof, with its vista of the whole of Berlin and what looks like half of Brandenburg, Bernie is being secretive again. This time he refuses to tell us what the middle surveillance dome – the one set higher up than the other two, on top of a tower – was used for. “You said that one was for picking up radio signals, and that one was for monitoring air traffic, so what else could the middle one be? Maybe satellites?” Bernie shrugs, narrows his eyes, and presses his lips together.
“Why is it still a secret?” someone asks.
“There are things about this place that are officially a secret until 2022,” he says.
“Come on, it’s not like America still cares. There’s nothing here.”
“You’re only half right there,” says Bernie. “The Americans still keep an eye on this place.” Some of the tourists can’t help but look around, while Bernie wanders off.
Bernie guarded the Teufelsberg field station from 1976 to 1992, checking the IDs on the American and British soldiers as they came into work every day (via separate entrances). Germans weren’t allowed in. And if they needed a plumber or a repair man, Bernie says solemnly, they were blindfolded as they were led through the windowless corridors inside.
The point of this field station was to eavesdrop on the communists. There were Russian specialists for Russian communications and German linguists to handle the East Germans. Another tour guide, Chris McLarren, spent two years – from 1973 to 1975 – as a signals traffic analyst at Teufelsberg, tracking the East German army as they marched around the Brandenburg countryside. “It was our job to know the other army almost as well as people serving in it,” is how he remembers it. As far as he is concerned, intelligence work in the Cold War meant preserving world peace: “The important thing is that the Soviets also had a listening post. … The biggest dangers were surprise, panic, and military over-reaction. But because we were both listening, there was no surprise, no panic, and no over-reaction. And we’re all still here. The world is very different now.”
Which is why, even though he’s an ex-intelligence agent, McLarren is on Edward Snowden’s side. “I admire whistleblowers greatly,” he says. “They are usually people trying to do the right thing, and they see other people trying to do the right thing, but not obeying the rules. And the rules are there for a purpose.” Then again, he admits he might not have felt so righteous back in the 70s. Would he have been concerned if he’d found out that the NSA was spying on West German citizens? “I would have to be persuaded now. I don’t know if that would have been the case then, because young people tend to be very enthusiastic about their work.”
As it is though, McLarren insists that his work at Teufelsberg was exclusively military. “So far as I know, mine was totally a military institution. This was the US Army’s intelligence agency, and we provided our information up the military chain.” But then he adds, “I don’t know if there were NSA workers there and it may have changed after I left.”
Defining the difference between military and civilian intelligence work is central to the NSA scandal – some surveillance targets are more legitimate than others. But drawing the line was tricky even when enemies were more visible, and since the end of the Cold War it has become a lot more difficult. Bill Binney, the former NSA technical director who resigned and turned whistleblower in 2001, believes the agency he worked for was effectively Teufelsberg listening station from the very beginning. After all, the NSA has a military component, called the Central Security Service (CSS), and that is usually headed by a US army general.
The combination of the end of the Cold War and 9/11 dramatically ramped up the political power of the intelligence community in the US. A couple of months ago, Binney testified to the German parliament that the NSA had become a “totalitarian organization.” It was a remark that was used in plenty of headlines because it confirmed the Germans’ biggest fear: the NSA equals the Stasi. Quite a few people have drawn that comparison, including, according to the New York Times, Angela Merkel during an angry phone call with Barack Obama (she denied it). It’s an obvious point to make, and it’s the apparent reason why Germans have been more outraged about the Snowden case than most. But, as Hubertus Knabe told Exberliner, while it might be valid in terms of methodology, it’s also fraught with historical inaccuracy.
Klaus Eichner might be one of the best people to judge. He had a 33-year career at East Germany’s Ministry of State Security (MfS) and became an officer specialized in combating the West’s secret services. Eichner recently published a withering book called “Empire Without Mysteries: What the GDR’s intelligence services already knew about the NSA,” which tells the dark stories of how the MfS infiltrated Teufelsberg. He doesn’t think much of the comparison. “Secret services are always formed by the political system from which they originate and in which they function,” he told Exberliner. “So there can be no equivalence between the secret services of the East and the West.”
But, he added, that doesn’t mean you can simply define the East as dictatorial and the West as democratic – “One argument is as wrong as the other,” he says. In his book, Eichner even dares to turn the equivalence on its head: “I share the chancellor’s view that the comparison between the MfS and the NSA is unacceptable, though for a different reason: we stuck to the laws.”
Whatever you think of that claim, the discussion itself is a little academic, given that the MfS doesn’t exist anymore. A bit more pertinent for us is the relationship between the NSA and reunified Germany’s intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). Another NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake, gave the German press more headlines earlier this year when he told the German parliamentary committee that the BND was nothing more than an “appendix” to the NSA. Though he says that the German press misinterpreted that – he didn’t mean a useless, subordinate bodily organ, but appendix as in what you put at the end of a book. “Sort of an afterthought,” as he puts it.
But whichever metaphor you prefer, the relationship, says Drake, is intimate and slightly unhealthy. “It’s fair to say that it’s very much a subservient relationship… the NSA is very much the big brother,” he told Exberliner.
The BND’s obedience to the NSA stems from West Germany’s former dependence on the USA. That had dramatic consequences in the aftermath of reunification, when the Stasi’s files on the NSA were inherited by the new German government. In “Empire Without Mysteries,” Eichner claims that the authority in charge of administering the Stasi files (headed by the future German President Joachim Gauck) and the Interior Ministry under Wolfgang Schäuble, broke German law to make sure that all the Stasi’s files on the NSA were handed over to the Americans, without any copies being kept. “The tracks were successfully covered,” Eichner writes. It was now “impossible to prove black on white how the Americans spied on the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany in the 70s and 80s.”
Eichner’s implication is that if the German government had followed its own rules, we would have known a lot more about the NSA before Binney, Drake, and Snowden came along. The whistleblowers merely made obvious what the Stasi knew all along: “The surveillance of German telecommunications by the NSA is not the core of the problem – the problem is the imperial urge of the USA superpower to impose its global ambition for domination with the help of the NSA in the electronic war against both friend and foe.”
A decade after reunification, the BND’s relationship to the NSA became even more obsequious, when the Germany’s intelligence agencies caught flak for failing to catch the Hamburg cell that took part in the September 11 attacks in the US. “The attitude was, ‘wait a minute, there were actual 9/11 terrorists living in Hamburg and you didn’t stop them,’ ” says Drake. After that, “the BND became eager to provide as much as it could. The 2002 agreement that I saw was very broad in terms of information-sharing and access. The NSA has always had this attitude to third parties [those outside the so-called ‘Five Eyes’]: you give us whatever we ask for and then we’ll decide what we give you – based on what you give us.”
Then, as the age of Facebook and mass online data dawned and the NSA’s mass surveillance programs began to fire up their engines, it became clear that Germany was in an ideal geographical position. It was a staging post for data flying in from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan, as well as across Europe. That agreement in 2002 marked the sea change. According to Drake, before 2002, especially during the Cold War, mass data about citizens wasn’t collected and even targeted data wasn’t kept for longer than was necessary for analysis. Afterwards, he says, “it didn’t matter.” “The mindset was ‘we need all the data’ … and the NSA had particular leverage over the BND.”
All this has left Germany in what you’d call an awkward position: it is both the NSA’s most obsequious lapdog and its bitterest, most outraged critic.