Author Topic: Foreign Customs: U.S. Supersedes Authority at German Airports, Seaports in Name  (Read 1677 times)

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Foreign Customs: U.S. Supersedes Authority at German Airports, Seaports in Name of ‘War on Terror’

By John Goetz, Christian Fuchs, Frederik Obermaier and Tanjev Schultz

 The Airport in Frankfurt, Germany:

The U.S. agents appear without warning. Suddenly, they’re standing next to a flight attendant pointing someone out. That passenger shouldn’t be allowed to board the plane. Officially, these American border patrol agents are only supposed to give ‘advice’ about potentially dangerous passengers. In practice, though, they determine who can and can’t fly to the U.S.

They are part of a troop of agents and security guards stationed in Germany permanently. More than 50 agents from Homeland Security, the Secret Service and immigration and transportation services work alongside the CIA and NSA in Germany. These agents enjoy diplomatic immunity and have power akin to German customs and police officers. They decide who can board planes, which containers are loaded onto cargo ships—sometimes they even make arrests, apparently.

The case of Jonny Hell

The Estonian hacker Aleksandr S. was on his way to a vacation in Bali. Since there’s no direct flight from Tallinn, he booked a connector flight through Frankfurt. As he handed over his boarding pass in Frankfurt, two Americans in dark suits asked whether he was “Jonny Hell”. He nodded. That was his nickname among the hacker community. The men grabbed ahold of him. They didn’t have an arrest warrant, but they did have Secret Service badges. The Secret Service is publically known for protecting U.S. “leaders, visiting world leaders, national special security events, and the integrity of the nation’s currency.” These days, it’s also quite active in Frankfurt Airport.

The agents gave Jonny Hell over to the German federal police, although they initially didn’t have an international arrest warrant. And despite the fact that the flight was not headed to the U.S. at all. Jonny Hell never got that vacation in Bali. Instead he sits in a prison in Ohio, where the German police allowed him to be extradited.

In 2012, a court in New York sentenced him to seven years in prison for massive credit card fraud. The 29-year-old confessed to the crime and turned out to be a dangerous data thief. But if his case had been handled according to the law, he wouldn’t be sitting in prison at all. Thing is, American law enforcement agencies aren’t allowed to conduct business on German soil.
“U.S. sovereign acts are not permitted in Germany,” the German government says. And what shouldn’t happen, doesn’t happen—in Germany’s eyes. Jonny Hell, the official line goes, was arrested by the German feds. “Apprehension by foreign personnel did not take place,” according to the Ministry of the Interior. Those involved describe events differently. “You are under arrest,” the Secret Service reportedly told Jonny Hell. Only later did German police come onto the scene.

A ‘legally unbalanced’ relationship

The Secret Service is more than a troop of bodyguards for the U.S. president. The agency was founded in 1865 to hunt down counterfeiters. The charge to protect the president came later. Today part of their mission also includes reconnaissance on cybercriminals. The German feds kept Jonny Hell even though he wasn’t added to their database and, according to a police officer involved in the case, requests for information sent to the Federal Criminal Police Office weren’t answered. A warrant was delivered by the U.S. a few days later.

This process of warrants and extradition reveals a lot about the transatlantic relationship. The Germans are at the service of the U.S. And the Americans aren’t wont to return the favor.

In 2007 the U.S. took a hit. A prosecutor in Munich put out a search warrant for 13 Americans. They were the CIA agents suspected of taking part in the abduction and extradition of the German Khaled el-Masri to a torture prison in Afghanistan. An extradition request for the Americans was never passed on to the U.S. government. To date, el-Masri’s kidnappers remain on the loose.

The relationship between Germany and the U.S. is “legally unbalanced,” lawyers say. “In Germany foreign authorities are allowed to carry out arrests. The Secret Service knows this but ignores the fact,” says Jonny Hell’s New York lawyer.

The U.S. often operates within a legal grey zone in Germany. Their missions are justified as part of the ‘war on terror’. What exactly the Americans agents are up to seems to elude the German government as well. The request made by a German parliamentarian for “a detailed description of tasks,” has remained unanswered for quite some time.

Switching Places

A man who works in customs at the Port of Hamburg says that Americans stationed here gave tips on which shipping containers the German customs officers should look at a bit closer. They have offices within the Waltershof Customs Office, another man says. But the woman at the front desk there reacts with shock when we ask where the Americans work. “There aren’t any here, basically,” she says. She calls her supervisor. No one is there to talk to, he said.

Requests submitted by Süddeutsche Zeitung and broadcaster NDR to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin were left unanswered. These agents rather work in secret.

At the Frankfurt Airport the American agents switch offices often, according to German police there. The last location they knew of was in Terminal C, where it still said “Military Police Customs” on the door. Now all that’s left behind the frosted windows is a desk and a couple filing cabinets. They’ve moved again.

It’s hard to get even the most basic information about Americans agents in Germany. But they know a lot about everyone else. Homeland Security has access to home addresses, email addresses, and credit card numbers of air passengers. And all this data may be saved for 15 years. Phone numbers, too. The same goes for travel agencies used to book tickets and records of missed flights. This data is evidently also given over to the NSA.

Who’s watching the Watchlist?

American agents are stationed at so-called Last Gate Checks at departure gates all over Germany. They’re there to check the different lists: No Fly, Selectee and the Terror Watchlist. Together these lists name some 1,000,000 people. Why they’re listed remains a secret.

“We ourselves don’t know what criteria is being used and what authority these gentlemen have,” says one German airline worker.

It’s also unclear how many passengers are prevented from boarding planes on account of these lists. The German Ministry of the Interior refers to the airlines, but they won’t give any numbers.
Airlines’ cooperation with the U.S. is under “strict confidentiality rules,” says the spokesperson for Air Berlin. Lufthansa doesn’t keep any records or statistics on rejected passengers, according to statements made by the airline.

The airlines adhere to the recommendations of the American agents. They don’t dare to risk problems on future flights to the States.
What seems like an extremely preemptive border patrol goes even further. In the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, records show that in 2007 a German Ministry of the Interior representative demanded the German feds enter the names of the people who weren’t allowed to fly to the U.S. into their system. This No Fly list would also cover people who didn’t want to fly to the U.S. at all—people who, for example, just wanted to fly from Frankfurt to Munich.

Klaus Ott, Peter Hornung and Alexander Tieg contributed reporting

(pic by DPA)

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