U.S. Helped Nab German Suspects

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Uli Deck / EPA

Federal policemen escort a terror suspect from a helicopter.

American assistance in uncovering the terrorist plot last week to attack U.S. and German targets in Germany was "vital," according to a German official familiar with the investigation. It was National Security Agency surveillance of communications between Germany and Pakistan, along with some help from Pakistani intelligence, that first uncovered the plot last October and "set the ball rolling," the German official told TIME. The investigation culminated last week in the arrests in central Germany of three ringleaders, two German nationals and a Turk, and the revelation that the cell was plotting a "massive" attack, possibly on U.S. targets in Germany. "U.S. intelligence was of utmost importance," said the official, who asked not to be named. "The U.S. was even more prominent in this than they appear to be."

The collaboration is the latest example of how German-U.S. ties have improved since the falling-out over the Iraq War. But the closeness of the collaboration has also reignited another debate, both in Germany and the U.S., over how to balance the need for effective eavesdropping of suspected terrorists with the privacy of ordinary citizens. Both U.S. and German security officials are citing the German bust as Exhibit A in an effort to introduce more sweeping electronic eavesdropping powers in their respective countries. But the case may serve just as well as an illustration of how old-fashioned sleuthing can achieve the right result in the end.

It was U.S. intelligence that first detected an increased "intensity" in telephone and electronic communications between Europe and tribal areas of Pakistan starting a year ago, according to the German official. Then, last October, a U.S. agency spotted coded communications between the aliases "Muaz," "Zafer" and "Abdul Malik," apparently based in Germany, and sources in Pakistan. U.S. officials passed on copies of those messages, apparently gleaned from private Internet chat rooms, to German officials. The messages were in code, but contained some decipherable details including a discussion of hydrogen peroxide, which can be used to make a bomb in high enough concentrations. At one point, a message mentioned "The Kurd is coming," leading analysts to believe that an attack was imminent.

According to a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel, the results of the surveillance, codenamed "Operation Alberich," were discussed at the highest levels. President George Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were updated on its progress over the past year, and the two leaders discussed the operation during the meeting of G8 leaders of industrialized countries in Heiligendamm, Germany, in June. The U.S. ambassador to Germany and Michael Hayden, the CIA director, brought it up regularly with German counterparts.

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff repeatedly raised the case with Germany's Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, who reassured his counterpart that German authorities were taking the case seriously. The two, German officials say, have a close personal chemistry. Chertoff and his wife visited the Schaeubles at their country home and in the German capital, Berlin. "There is a level of understanding and trust on the important issues," one said.

In addition to trumpeting their collaboration, both German and U.S. officials have seized on the case to push for the implementation of controversial eavesdropping measures, including greater powers of electronic surveillance. In Germany, Schaeuble is arguing for measures that would include the secret installation of spying software via the Internet on suspects' personal computers in order to monitor their communications. "The experts agree that terrorists communicate with each other more and more through the Internet," he told reporters on the day of the arrests. "Therefore, in exceptional cases, we need to have the power to get into computers." But the proposal has met stiff resistance from members of the opposition in a country where memories of the Nazi police state make citizens especially sensitive to government intrusion.

In the U.S., Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, cited the case earlier this week before a Senate committee hearing as an example of why the U.S. needs to stick with a controversial new law, scheduled to expire in five months, that sharply increases the power of the government to spy on suspects. The law authorizes warrantless wiretaps of people believed to be outside of the United States or where a "foreign" connection is suspected. Critics have said the law could be used to spy on American citizens without judicial oversight. A previous interpretation of the law required investigators to obtain warrants.

In Senate hearings this week, McConnell was asked by Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an advocate of the new law, whether the law, called the Protect America Act, helped with the German arrests. "Yes, sir. It did.... The ability to listen in on plotters.... allowed us to see and understand all the connections among members of the suspected terrorist cell," McConnell said. "Because we could understand it, we could help our partners through a long period of monitoring and observation." Critics, including several Congressmen, have argued that the most important intercepts in the German case were obtained before the updated U.S. rule took effect. McConnell later conceded the point and called Lieberman to clarify his testimony.

In Germany too, an opposition leader has pointed out that the case was in fact broken without any extraordinary eavesdropping powers. Much of the sleuthing, after the first break in the case, was done the old-fashioned way — via in-person, on-the-ground surveillance. Off and on during the past nine months the suspects knew they were being watched. At one point, a suspect even stopped at a traffic light, got out of his car, and slashed the tires of the car behind him to thwart the German agents who were following him. One of the suspects, less than discreetly, chanted anti-U.S. slogans outside a nightclub frequented by servicemen while being watched. No need for a wiretap to pick that up.