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Germany: Monitoring Potential Terrorists Is Terminated

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 18 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's intelligence service has temporarily stopped trying to track international terrorists and drug smugglers by monitoring telephone, telex and fax messages.

A spokesman for the service has confirmed that the two-year-old experiment was shut down a few weeks ago, on technological grounds. Experts said current technology was inadequate, particularly in regard to telephone messages, although it produced better results with faxes and telex messages.

Security experts said the U.S. and Britain were engaged in similar monitoring experiments against terrorism and drug smugglers but declined to discuss how successful they had been. Germany is generally rated third in the world behind the U.S. and Britain in electronic-monitoring know-how.

The basic idea is simple -- a systematic monitoring of the telephone, fax and telex traffic of known or suspected terrorists and drug smugglers to and from Germany. In practice the task is more complicated because of the volume of traffic. In Germany there are millions of phone calls, faxes and telex calls every day.

Few details of the operation have been disclosed. However the Munich newspaper "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," which has good connections to the intelligence service, said today the operation had focused on 856 cases since it began in April 1996.

The equipment operated on code words. As an easy example, any telex message from one of these numbers was automatically recorded if it mentioned the name of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian millionaire believed to be the mastermind of many terrorist operations, possibly including the recent bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In another example, the recording equipment reacted automatically to any mention of the word "ammonium nitrate," because this is a key substance in certain types of bombs used by terrorists.

But according to the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" the results were hardly overwhelming. Out of the thousands of messages monitored over the past two years, only 2,494 were thought to have a possible connection with terrorism. And of these, only 21 turned out to be of any value for the intelligence service.

As one expert said: "Obviously, even these 21 messages had little real value otherwise the monitoring operation would not have been shut down." The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" said that nothing came out of the operation and the end result was a heap of valueless paper.

The parallel operation against suspected drug smugglers that started in 1996 was equally unsuccessful and was shut down at the end of May. Around 600 reports were recorded but, according to the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," the operation produced not a single useful tip for the police.

The main technical problem for the service was in filtering-out possibly suspicious telephone calls. The computer-controlled automatic equipment apparently had few problems in filtering-out questionable telex and fax messages from the thousands which were monitored. But the automatic equipment found it difficult to monitor telephone conversations, which came in varying quality and in different languages and dialects.