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Complexities Multiply in Greek Wiretapping Scandal

February 6, 2006

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Speculations are flying this week as the official investigation into Greece’s major wiretapping scandal gets underway. The government is trying to discover who was behind the covert operation that targeted the highest officials in the land- and why.

According to Kathimerini, Magistrate Giorgos Aktipis has been ordered to get to the bottom of the mystery, and “to look into not just the breach of privacy laws but also the possibility that espionage was involved and that state secrets were compromised.”

The newspaper states that some 15 officials have already testified in a preliminary investigation, “including top government officials and officers from the National Intelligence Agency (EYP). Giorgos Koronias, the CEO of Vodafone in Greece – where the spy software had been installed – also answered questions.”

An Investigation Doomed in Advance?

Koronias and his company were accused of ruining any chance of finding the perpetrators by removing the spy software, thus severing the connection with whoever had installed it, on March 8, 2005. They argue now that “it was a crucial matter of security for its networks and immediate actions had to be taken,” according to Reporter.gr.

The discovery of the spy system, which utilized 4 urban phone antennae in Athens, was made by Ericsson technicians after complaints from customers. “Early in 2005, users notified Vodafone they were experiencing difficulties in receiving messages and in making phone calls,” reported Dow Jones, citing Greek Public Order Minister Yiorgos Voulgarakis. The Swedish company provides Vodafone with the software.

According to the report, after the complaints began, “Vodafone in Greece notified its U.K. parent, which sent an investigation team to Athens and found spying software was in place on Vodafone Greece’s central system. The software was diverting telephone calls, being made to and from around 100 people, to 14 mobile telephony devices.”

According to Kathimerini, “Vodafone antennas in the central Athens areas of Lycabettus, Mavilis Square and the Athens Tower were used in the eavesdropping operation. “The investigation discovered a special code in the software which permitted cell phone interception,’ said Justice Minister Anastassis Papaligouras.”

Interestingly, the Reporter.gr article claims that “the legal “wiretapping’ software was bought from Ericsson, for the Olympic Games Security needs and supposed to have been used only through legitimate procedures, i.e. only after official request from judicial and police authorities,” and that at the time the software was not to be used, because a crucial law had not been passed.

Nevertheless, “the unknown intruders managed to plant a Trojan Horse/spyware into Ericsson’s software. Also one should take seriously on board that Ericsson’s call interception system was locked. That is why Vodafone turned to Ericsson. It is Ericsson’s [staff] who handled the specific checking.”

A Suspicious Suicide?

The spying began as early as June 2004, two months before the Athens Olympics, peaked during the games, and continued until March 8, 2005. Two days later, Vodafone informed the government about the spying.

Feeding latent Greek paranoia and making the whole affair more lurid, however, was the fact that on the 9th, Vodafone’s top technical executive conveniently “hung himself” in his Athens apartment.

While the company protests that there was no relation between the death of Kostas Tsalikides and the scandal, the Guardian reports that there are reasons for suspicion: “as the mobile company’s network planning manager, he was best placed to know who installed the software, insiders claim.” The Guardian cites the late Tsalikides’ brother, who told Ta Nea that, “we found no suicide noteˆ- he had no health problems, was about to marry and was doing very well at work.”

But things grew darker and more disturbing on Saturday, when according to GreekNews, a childhood friend of the late Tsalikides, Sokratis Liolios, “found a handwritten note that said: “Choose a way to die.’ The note was signed by the “Blood donor’ and a swastika was also drawn on it.”

An Inside Job?

The software, installed on Vodafone’s central system, diverted all calls made to and from around 100 numbers to “14 pay-as-you-go mobile phones, from which conversations could then be recorded,” said Kathimerini.

The precise numbers tapped are remarkable in several ways. They included “…the prime minister’s, the whole leadership of the defence ministry and the whole leadership of the public order ministry, some foreign ministry phones, one former minister, now in opposition, and others,’ government spokesman Theodore Roussopoulos told a news conference.”

Among these “others’ were phones belonging to antiwar and civil rights activists, Arabs, and even a US Embassy official.

Aside from this interesting selection of figures, the other unusual thing is the fact that some of the phones were not registered to the actual person who used them- indicating insider involvement. As a second Reporter.gr article put it:

“the crucial element is that the “intruders’ knew exactly which phones to tap. Who would know that a mobile phone registered in a technical company was being used by the Prime Minister? Or that a phone registered to a medium ranked diplomat was being used by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Certainly only very few have the ability to get hands in such information, analysts say.”

Or Foreign Involvement?

But could there have been foreign actors with the means, ability and interest to pull off such an operation? Greeks seem to think so. The government has spent the past few days trying “to quell speculation yesterday that foreign agents were behind the eavesdropping,” as the IHT put it.

“Engineers discovered that the 14 receiving phones were using four mobile telephone masts within a radius of some 2 kilometers in central Athens,” the article added. “The location of the snooping phones has given rise to speculation that American secret agents were involved, since the US Embassy is within the area defined by the four masts.”

The possibility that the Americans were involved was “categorically denied” by Greek government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos. “Relations between Greece and the USA are, and remain, good,” he said.

At the same time, he “rejected assertions that the government had indirectly tried to finger the US Embassy by revealing the location of the mobile phone masts,” the IHT reported.

Indeed, this suspicion doesn’t hold water for former CIA agent Bruce Tefft, who stated that, “if it were the US the listening posts would not be close to the US Embassy- we may make mistakes but we’re not that stupid.”

Further, he did not see any realistic motive for the US to have taken such a risk. “I don’t think there’s anything in Greece warranting such an effort. We have far too many real enemies in the world to worry that much about what our allies might be doing.”

Nevertheless, nothing can be discounted outright, which is what will make the investigators’ jobs very difficult. From the world superpower to the tiniest tech-friendly group of experts, the options are limitless.

Terrorists, territorial rivals such as Turkey, local political insiders and criminal organizations- there may simply be too many contenders for us to ever know who masterminded the taps.

Indeed, as Kathimerini reported, “[any] people with the right equipment can easily intercept phone calls –  it takes just a second to tap a phone call, since mobile phone networks (GSM) have major security flaws which can be manipulated.”

“Everyone with money and a first world technical capability [could have done it],” added the former CIA agent. “This includes every major and even some minor intelligence service including the Russians, French, US, Israel, Germans, Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians, etc. It also includes every major cartel and organized crime family.”

Therefore, “a criminal gang, or terrorist operation, or local regional enemies or even political rivalries- these seem to me to me more likely [than the US].”

In the search for potential clues, one might try to contextualize the affair in light of the larger world events going on at the time.

From June 2004 to March of 2005, Greek foreign relations underwent various challenges, even traumas. In addition to the Olympics, the key events included negotiations over Cyprus, Turkey’s movement towards EU candidate status, and the American recognition of Macedonia by its constitutional name. The last, especially, seemed to have caught the government flat-footed. Indeed, it was not a particularly triumphant period for Greek foreign policy, which seemed to be on the defensive more often than not.

It now seems that unknown parties were aware of the conversations Greece’s highest officials held and perhaps, policies and decisions made before they actually materialized. Perhaps this case conceals some answers regarding why Greek leaders seemed so off-balanced and even surprised in some of their reactions to key regional events during the period in question.

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