The U.S. military is withdrawing its communications eavesdropping station from Bad Aibling, Germany, following consultations with the regional Baviarian government, officials tell ABCNEWS.com.
Operations at the facility — the subject of some controversy in Germany over concerns of U.S. spying — will end in September 2002, allowing the base to be returned to the German government.
Some German politicians have been calling for the base's closure.
The Bad Aibling station is one of a handful of major U.S.-run listening posts around the world that are part of the controversial, so-called "Echelon" system, which is believed to intercept global communications, sift through them, and transmit selected ones back to the United States and partner countries for analysis.
Echelon is said to be operated worldwide by five principal countries: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is believed to intercept large quantities of telephone, fax, Internet and e-mail communications through satellite receiver stations and possibly spy satellites.
The U.S. government has declined to discuss the existence of the system, but officials have often discussed the restrictions and capabilities of its global eavesdropping technology.
The decision to relocate the station was made following discussions with the Bavarian government, according to a National Security Agency spokeswoman. "As a result of that consultation, it was determined that closing that facility was the wisest course to take."
NSA and U.S. military officials gave no further indication of the reason for the closing, other than to say the forces there "will be consolidated and realigned."
The reported 1,800 American personnel working at Bad Aibling include Army, Navy, and Air Force intelligence units and civilians with the NSA, headquartered at Fort Meade, Md. According to the official, some of the civilian personnel will return to the United States and some will be transferred to other posts.
"The mission will remain, but be done elsewhere," said the NSA official. "It's not the end of the mission of the Bad Aibling station."
"I would say that, to the first approximation, anything they could do at Bad Aibling they could do at Menwith Hill. … I'd be really suprised if they were losing anything," says John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org in Washington, D.C.
Some 150 Germans reportedly work there as well.
'Echelon' Under Fire
Created in 1947, Bad Aibling was considered a key post for eavesdropping on Soviet and Eastern European communications during the Cold War. After the Cold War, its missions evolved, but the station still has been considered essential.
"Bad Aibling Station is an integral part of the Department of Defense communications network and provides support to U.S. and allied interests," said a press statement released today by the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, which announced the closing.
However, some European politicians have alleged with increasing volume that the station and its sister station at Menwith Hill, U.K., have been eavesdropping on German and other European commercial concerns and citizens.
Last month, the European Union released a report alleging the system, including Bad Aibling, has been dedicated to eavesdropping on European civilians and companies, sometimes for industrial espionage.
The report argued the system violates EU law by gathering communications for purposes other than purely intelligence matters, and possibly violates European Union privacy rights.
Former CIA director James Woolsey, who led the agency from 1993 to 1995, said in various forums last year that European communications had been intercepted by the United States showing evidence of bribery by European companies to try to win international deals, information that had been used by the U.S. government against the companies.
Stories regularly surface in the German press of German companies alleging their communications are being intercepted by the Americans. Last June, the U.S. government took an unprecedented step to try to assuage those concerns. They allowed officials from the German Budestag, the parliament, to visit the supersecret facility to assure them it is not being used for economic espionage against German companies.
"With the end of the Cold War, I think it became increasingly difficult to explain why you had both Bad Aibling and Menwith Hill," says Pike. "And if the German politicians were getting antsy about Bad Aibling in a way that the British politicians were not about Menwith Hill, then I think it wouldn't be terribly difficult to see why that source of political irritation would be removed without any great loss to the nebulous control authority."
The announcement today of the decision to leave Bad Aibling may not have been fully anticipated by Washington. Congress in 1999 appropriated money for infrastructure and quality of life improvements at Bad Aibling and Menwith Hill for 2000 and 2001, as it did in 1998 and 1999.