The following post is a summary of events from the “Athens Affair”, which was widely reported on in 2007. In particular, an investigation was re-opened and concluded in 2011, of which we found almost no reference in English media.  Translations of two relevant articles from the Greek magazine Epikaira have also been published by WLPress as reference.

Written by greekemmy, with contributions and editing by taro.

When a Greek electrical engineer for Vodafone Greece named Costas Tsalikidis was found hanged in his apartment in Athens on 9 March 2005, no one could have expected that it would be the start of a months-long scandal later dubbed ‘The Athens Affair’. [1] The day afterwards, Greek prime minister Costas Karamanlis learned that his cellphone and those of at least 100 other high-ranking dignitaries were being tapped, as well as the phone of an employee at the U.S. embassy. The victims were all customers of Greece’s largest cellular service provider Vodafone Greece, and Tsalikidis had been in charge of network planning at the company. [1]

Abuse of lawful intercept software

Illegally implanted software was eventually found in four of Vodafone’s Greek switches[2] – telephone network components used to connect two lines to a call. The software was able to copy ordinary calls and send them to 14 additional phone lines, called shadow cellphones; this effectively ‘conference called’ the other lines without the users’ knowledge. [1] According to the switch equipment manufacturer Ericsson, two pieces of software were behind the surveillance operation. One was an intentionally preinstalled feature that was meant to be used for lawful interception by the government, if activated (Ericsson and Vodaphone claim it was not). The other was a ‘rogue’ piece of software which activated Ericsson’s preinstalled feature and hid all traces of its activation afterwards. [3]

Who was responsible for the telephone interceptions?

A year after the tapping was discovered and stopped, a newspaper broke the story and then the Greek Prime Minister Karamanlis informed a stunned country what had happened. Despite several enquiries and investigations, the mastermind of the wiretapping remained elusive. In December 2006 a Greek privacy group called the Communications Privacy Protection Authority fined Vodafone Greece €76 million for illegally wiretapping 106 cellphones. This amounted to €500,000 for each tapped phone and a €15 million fine for impeding investigation. On October 19, 2007, Vodafone Greece was fined another €19 million by the national telecommunications regulator EETT for alleged breach of privacy rules. [4]

Despite rumours that the US was behind the interception [5], no evidence was found on who did this till September 2011.

The US as the culprit

The new evidence came about as a result of a 2010-2011 Public Enquiry identifying the US Embassy in Athens as the party behind the interceptions. The conclusions of the enquiry conducted by the then Appeals Prosecutor Mr Dasoulas were leaked in September 2011 by the Weekly Political Magazine ‘Epikaira’. The Greek magazine published an article on the 1st of September, 2011 and another on the 8th. In the articles they presented the new evidence incriminating the US and announced that a criminal case against US Embassy employees had been raised by the Head of Appeals Prosecution Office, Mr Sakellakos. [6]

Key evidence of US complicity

Out of the 14 shadow handsets mentioned above, an individual falsely identifying himself as Markos Petrou purchased three on the same day from the same shop, in additon to a forth handset. The investigation by Mr Dasoulas showed that the forth handset was used to communicate with a string of mobile numbers registered with named US Embassy staff in Athens, as well as a great number of landline numbers at the same location. The same forth handset was used with a different SIM card to communicate with telephone numbers in Maryland, USA.[6]

Reactions and reasons for the surveillance

The US Embassy made no official comment on the Prosecutorial report. Calls for legal assistance in identifying the owners of the Maryland numbers were unanswered. The Epikaira articles describe why it was to the US and Greek governments’ mutual advantage to not let the wiretapping scandal affect the two countries’ relationship. The articles also identify possible reasons the US would want to effect such extensive bugging of the entire government of an allied nation. Some scenarios explored include: an Ambassador’s private interest, commercial interests over the purchase of C41 security system from SAIC by the Greek government, security over the 2004 Olympic Games, Karamanlis’ attempt at independent national and foreign policy including re-approachment with Russia over energy matters. [6]

Finally, the articles site WikiLeaks cables, secret FSB documents, and memos from the Hellenic Intelligence Service EYP showing Karamanlis was the subject of continuous surveillance by the US throughout his premiership.[6]

The impact of this scandal on Greek society was profound in other ways. Undermining the national sovereignty of an allied state is an act of betrayal. Ultimately, society will blame not only the perpetrators of such betrayal but also the political leadership that did not protect itself against such agression. On May 30th 2006, Revolutionary Struggle detonated a bomb near George Voulgarakis residence (Public Order Minister at the time of the wiretapping occuring). In their statement they mention his role in the wiretapping scandal as part of the reason he was targetted. [7] This is an example of how US efforts to control other nation’s policy through surveillance undermines stability and weakens democracy in that country.

Ultimately, the Greek government’s willingness to protect their relationship with the US as illustrated by Foreign Affairs Minister Molyviatis dismmissing the public reaction as “hysteria” does not serve public feeling of what is just. [8]

It would be of interest to know what happened to the criminal case against the perpetrators of this wiretapping. There are many questions to be answered, not forgetting the questions of the family and friends of the Vodaphone engineer Tsalikidis, who refuse to accept his death as a suicide.

Resources:

[1] The Athens Affair, 29 June, 2007. IEEE Spectrum.
[2] Telephone exchange – The switch’s place in the system. Wikipedia.
[3] Greek Wiretapping Scandal, 22 June, 2006. Schneier on Security.
[4] Greek Wiretapping case 2004-2005. Wikipedia.
[5] Death Muddies Greek Spy probe, 24 March, 2006. BBC News.
[6] Translation: USA Espionage against Greece  & Translation: Courtcase Evidence: USA Espionage against Greece, WikiLeaks Press.
[7] Revolutionary Struggle: New Generation Of Domestic Terrorists?  Cable 06ATHENS1491 from WikiLeaks Cablegate.
[8] Ambassador’s Tour D’Horizon With Greek Foreign Minister Molyviatis.  Cable 06ATHENS373 from WikiLeaks Cable