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stern-Exclusive: The Infiltrated Country

An investigation by stern magazine shows that inside Germany, the U.S. government operates a network of private companies that act as henchmen for U.S. intelligence services.

Main entrance of the United States Army's European headquarters, Lucius D. Clay barracks, in Wiesbaden

Main entrance of the United States Army's European headquarters, Lucius D. Clay barracks, in Wiesbaden

Affection for Germany is omnipresent in the small apartment somewhere in the desert in the American West. An old-fashioned radio on the shelf, an album of Wolfgang Ambros, the TV series "Rosenheim Cops" on DVD. The man who has lived here for a year still doesn't quite feel at home. He misses traditional Swabian food like Schupfnudeln, a kind of potato dumplings, Bamberg rauchbier and his weekly run to the newsstand at the main station in Stuttgart where he would pick up the German Sunday papers. Yes, at times he even misses the drizzle that is unknown in the land of eternal sunshine.

Not much can be said about the man, who loves Germans so much. One can't disclose his name, his age or the place where he currently lives. About his work, too, he doesn't waste many words, because that would make him liable to prosecution. It has to do with the kind of work he did. George Smith, as we are going to call him here, was a spy. He spent his days in Germany handling top secret information.

For three decades, he worked in Germany for the U.S. government, first during the Cold War when he monitored and translated calls for the NSA and most recently, in the global war on terror as a computer expert in charge of maintaining secret databases. His employer was Booz Allen Hamilton, the same company contracted by the military and the NSA for which Edward Snowden worked before he fled the US. Last year, Smith's residence permit failed to be renewed. Wistfully, he returned to the US.

There are quite a few George Smiths in Germany. Their number might well be more than a thousand. They are part of the clandestine empire, which the U.S. has built since the end of World War II. Not even Edward Snowden's sensational revelations provide a full picture of how brazenly the Americans spy abroad.

A gigantic shadow empire has been created. At its helm are not only the usual suspects such as CIA or NSA. There is also the U.S. military, which had withdrawn 130,000 troops in the wake of German reunification but has replaced them with a new army. Experts in gathering secret information. There is a growing number of private companies, which increasingly do the dirty work. Thus, a new army of mercenaries, temporary intelligence officers, has emerged. Some of them may well have a hand in decisions over life and death. They are allegedly involved in deadly drone strikes, which according to German law experts violate international law.

Online job listings

stern magazine has tracked down many of these private contractors and found that over the past few years, at least 90 U.S. companies have worked in intelligence. Their employees collect and analyze information for five bases in Stuttgart, Ramstein, Darmstadt, Mannheim and Wiesbaden. They hack computer systems and assist with call monitoring. They write reports and analyses. They develop strategies for future intelligence operations, provide software and computers and maintain cabling. They see to it that buildings used by the US military and intelligence agencies are bug-proof and secured. And if necessary, they even clean up after dogs at the buildings' entrances to make sure that agents don't step in dog shit. At least, that is what a contract given out by one of the companies says.

Such contracts and job offerings, which are at times publicly available online, as well as websites of companies, federal agencies and the military, provided the basis for stern magazine's investigation. Military experts and former intelligence operatives confirmed the existence and significance of those companies, many of which only provide support. However, around 30 companies have been given assignments that used to be conducted exclusively by soldiers or intelligence operatives.

Most employees of those 30 companies have been granted Secret or Top Secret clearance. They are subject to thorough screenings before being deployed to Germany. They must have impeccable records and not be susceptible to blackmail. They are obliged to report to their employer any personal contact with non-Americans whether friendships or romantic relationships. The relevant forms for filing such a report can be ordered by mail.

Some of those companies assist more than a dozen units and outposts of the U.S. military as well as branches of CIA, NSA, FBI, Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the DEA. They all coordinate their work in interagency command centers and groups.

Some of the contractors and soldiers are so proud of their work that they boast about it online despite their obligation to maintain secrecy. For example, Brett F. who currently holds the position of tech chief for the Department of Counter Intelligence of EUCOM, the United States European Command headquartered in Germany. On his LinkedIn page, Brett F. posts that his knack for spying resulted in the arrest of seven individuals. Or Jeff R., who works for the same command center based in Stuttgart where he coordinates the operations of intelligence agents. He works for L3 Communications, a company that conducts intelligence operations on behalf of the U.S. government and has been urgently looking to fill vacancies in Germany as late as September 2013. Among the job openings: social network analyst and someone to enter biometric data into a terror database, all top-secret. On LinkedIn, Jeff R. boasts about his previous work including for the NSA.

Among the U.S. contractors are powerful corporations such as Booz Allen Hamilton, the "shadow intelligence agency" as one of its almost 200 vice presidents once described the company. On its website, the company says that it is a crucial partner for the Department of Defense. For years, the group has provided consulting services to the U.S. government in technology-related matters. With 24,000 employees worldwide, Booz Allen Hamilton reports revenue of almost six billion dollars. A quarter of this sum is generated from cooperation with the intelligence services. For the U.S. government, Booz Allen Hamilton is some kind of general factotum. Some employees teach soldiers how to draft strategies and write secret analyses, others, some of them based in Germany, scour data for possible threats in cyberspace.

Even more powerful than Booz Allen Hamilton, is Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) with worldwide annual revenue of eleven billion dollars. Around three-quarters of their orders come from the US Department of Defense. The group does business with all major U.S. intelligence agencies. Recently, SAIC spun off its national security business. The new company, called Leidos, provides support for a number of military bases in Germany, including the so-called Dagger Komplex in Darmstadt, where the 240 employees of the European Cryptologic Center (ECC) have offices. Aside from Wiesbaden, Stuttgart, Berlin and a small unit based in Bad Aibling, the ECC is one of five NSA sites in Germany. The ECC is allegedly about to move into a modern building with state of the art technology - and much larger storage capacities - in Wiesbaden.

According to job descriptions posted online, Leidos employees based in Germany coordinate intelligence operations on behalf of the U.S. European Command and assist in tracking down individuals and groups that could be relevant to US national security. Many former members of elite troops work for Leidos. Private companies usually offer higher pay than federal employers.

The German government knows who these companies are

However, there are also smaller firms from the espionage world and start-ups that have established themselves in Germany such as InCadence Strategic Solutions, founded by a group of former Navy Seals, America's most elite fighting unit. Currently, the company is looking for "highly motivated" staff, who "will gather, sort, scan and analyze intercepted messages."

The German government knows about the existence of many of those companies, since it formally approved their presence for providing service to the U.S. military. Staff members need to register in a program called Tesa. Yet Germans don't seem to know exactly what those companies really do. When stern magazine contacted the U.S. military in order to learn more about their intelligence operations in Germany, the spokesperson for the Ramstein Military Base candidly responded: "We have just received similar questions from government officials and are currently working on it." Revelations about tapping Angela Merkel's cell phone has caught German authorities flat-footed.

With regard to intelligence operations, the United States has still, 70 years after the end of World War II, not given up its role as an occupying power. Big Brother has a carte blanche and little brother looks down shamefacedly. Even some of the earlier CIA scandals did nothing to change this dynamic. In 1999, the federal authorities wanted to know how many U.S. agents were operating in Germany, in addition to the intelligence officers who had officially registered with the embassies and consulates. Of course, no response was offered. After 9/11, the German authorities stopped asking.

Instead, they sought to intensify cooperation with the US intelligence services. Together with the CIA, they developed a counter-terror database called "Projekt 6". After all, the Americans had provided German authorities with valuable information about radical Islamists from the area around Stuttgart and Ulm, information that later led to investigations against the so-called "Sauerland Group". The Germans, too, generously shared their intelligence. At one time, (wrong) information pointing to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and another time (correct) information about the Iranian nuclear program. The NSA instructed German authorities in the mutually used XKeysore espionage software and Germans again and again came to Washington to declare their will and interest to cooperate. Just like good friends do.

Last week, however, this friendship suffered a sudden rift after it was revealed that not even the Chancellor is safe from the big ears in the West. Don't trust anyone and take what you can get is the credo of every well-functioning intelligence service. Germans know that, as does the Chancellor. "Not all colleagues working for the CIA behave as guests," says the head of the Hamburg branch of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Manfred Murck. "Some of them make it very clear: The most important thing in the world is the security of the United States."

George Smith, the spy from Stuttgart who has returned home, says: "American intelligence agencies are like a fully automatic hammer. To them, almost anything is a nail, which they hit right away. We did some wild stuff in Germany." However, at least he can say of himself that he never spied on a German citizen. "I always believed that you don’t spy on your host." Still, he doesn't want to go as far as saying that all of his colleagues complied with this rule.

George Smith is allowed to talk a little bit about his work. Especially from the old days when they were sitting in their offices located on a hill, in a forest near Furth, close to the Czech border. They had huge headphones on and were listening in on the Russians, the Germans in the former GDR or the Czechs. At their side were German companies that also worked for the U.S. They would carefully steam open envelopes, in order to check on mail unnoticed. Outside, a barking German shepherd guarded the premises where the BND, Germany's Federal Intelligence Service had set up their office. It was just like in the movies.

Germany as the perfect location

A war was raging back then. Germany was the most important arena for U.S. spies, but not for historical reasons alone. Its geographic location made it ideal. Right in the thick of it and close to the front lines. In the 80s, around 600 NSA employees worked in Berlin alone. Crises in the Balkans followed. The United States flew combat missions for which they needed reliable intelligence. Then 9/11 happened, followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for which the U.S. military bases in Germany were crucial. The global war on terror was declared. Germany remained a pivotal and loyal ally - also in regard to the work of the intelligence services.

Today, a borderless war is raging. It is about information itself. It is a cyber war, with the data cloud as the battlefield. In today's war, whoever has the better technology to gain access to information will emerge the winner. Thus, private companies increasingly become more important in this war. Often, they are faster and their technology more state of the art. They don't add to the federal workforce and the government has latitude in assigning or cancelling their contracts. Therefore, the number of job openings in the private spy business is on the rise year after year. The demand for experts increases. The enormous volume of intercepted data needs to be managed intelligently, which is why many of the private firms specialize in programming. Analyzing biometric data, too, is increasingly important. Facial recognition and fingerprints, so that friends and foes can be clearly identified.

This war can be waged from anywhere, yet the Americans still like to use Germany as their field of operations. "It's more than just for nostalgic reasons," says George Smith. "Afghanistan and Africa can be reached quickly and for these kind of combat missions, Germany lies in a better time zone." Yet, above all, according to George Smith, Germany is a polite host who doesn’t ask questions.

Until now, U.S. authorities have been taboo for German counter-espionage. "The first thing you find out, upon taking office, is that you are not supposed to look too closely at what the Americans do. That’s not politically appropriate," says a former head of the German domestic intelligence service. "It is some sort of accepted basis of doing business for every President of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution." It is only now, in the wake of the scandal about Chancellor Merkel's cell phone, that the German intelligence services announced that they would quickly reinforce their counterespionage staff.

A Supplementary Agreement to NATO Status of Forces Agreement forms the legal basis for the espionage activities on German soil. It gives the U.S. military permission to "take all measures necessary for the satisfactory fulfillment of its defense responsibilities". It is a malleable pamphlet, which was written 50 years ago. The Americans consider it a blanket clause. Anything goes, since everything is related to defending the United States. Even targeted killings, which are allegedly planned in Stuttgart.

The buildings of the "Kelley Barracks" date back to the Nazi era. Their premises are adjacent to the Daimler AG site. Today, the buildings house Africom, the United States Africa Command. Apart from Eucom, it is one of the major commands the Americans manage from Germany. It is the hub from which all military operations on the African continent are prepared, directed and controlled.

Finding targets for drone attacks

For the members of the Joint Special Operations Task Force - Trans Sahara, the workweek starts with a fixed appointment. Every Monday, after lunch at 1 pm, the commander attends a secret presentation. Its content: Targeting. Military experts who reviewed documents obtained by stern Magazine unanimously say that it is about alleged terrorists of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). What to do with them? To track, capture or kill them?

The three Fs in a internal job description for Africom stand for "find, fix, finish," whereby finish can either mean kill or capture.

The job listing for a private contractor whose job it will be to handle the targeting describes the process in great detail. Using a PowerPoint presentation, the applicant is expected to provide the commander and the reconnaissance unit with information about "heretofore unknown individuals and regions." Then, the applicant enters potential targets for future drone strikes or special operations into a database. Now it is clear who is soon going to die in Africa:

Special forces or combat drones, stationed in the U.S. base in Djibouti, enforce the sentences. The Combined Air and Space Operation Center based in Ramstein, Germany monitors all air traffic over Africa and Europe.

Many of the operations the Americans conduct as part of their intelligence complex on German soil, remain in the shadows. Do they only intercept communications from abroad, as the official version goes? Or do they blithely spy on German citizens? Do they tap lines from within Germany or can they do it from outside the countryß

Not even Edward Snowden's revelations up to now offer a clear answer. According to Snowden, the 500 million pieces of data collected monthly in Germany, to which the NSA has access, seem to be foreign phone calls, mainly from such hot spots such as Afghanistan. Reports that the NSA has tapped the world's biggest data hub "De-Cix" based in Frankfurt on a large scale have been denied by its operators. Still, experts, such as former NSA official William Binney, think it is possible that the NSA collects data from phone and internet providers inside Germany. At least, that is what the NSA would do in the U.S.

However, there is little doubt that Chancellor Merkel's cell phone was tapped directly from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. A unit of NSA and CIA called Special Collection Services (SCS) is allegedly responsible. Former NSA employee Binney believes that the data is intercepted by a secret surveillance program called Ragtime; Ragtime-A for counter-terrorism information collection and Ragtime-B for the collection of data from foreign governments. Of course, units such as SCS don't register with German authorities, just as the many CIA agents who come here using a legend fail to do. "It's safe to assume that the CIA has an informant in every government in Western Europe," says a former CIA officer who worked for years in different European capitals. "Often, money is involved."

In his new hometown, George Smith, the longtime spy in Germany, bought a German compact car, which he drives to work at a new private intelligence provider. He bought it for nostalgic reasons to remind him of Germany. Meanwhile, Smith has given up hope that he could soon be deployed to Swabia again. He says that maybe that is a good thing. His German friends were so friendly when they said goodbye to him, but probably wouldn't welcome him with open arms after all those revelations. That is why George prefers to stay in the desert. And spy from there.

William Arkin, Karen Grass, Martin Knobbe, Dirk Liedtke, Nina Plonka, Andrea Rungg, Oliver Schröm and Anuschka Tomat

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