It was the morning of 9 March, 2005. Panayiotis Tsalikidis was heading to have coffee with his brother Costas in Kolonos, downtown Athens, before a meeting. As he entered the building, he heard his mother screaming: “Cut him down!”
He entered the apartment and saw his brother’s body hanging in front of the bathroom door. “I immediately called my wife and asked her to bring a high-definition camera so I could take some pictures on the spot, because I didn’t believe it was a suicide,” says Panayiotis today.
A decade later, the Tsalikidis family continues to believe that the death of the 39-year-old Vodafone technician was instigated by a third party. The evidence they have managed to painstakingly gather over the years, together with the written statements of the judicial authorities who worked on the case, clearly suggest that Costas Tsalikidis’ death is inextricably linked to the bugging through the Vodafone network of the phones of high-ranking government officials during the administration of Costas Karamanlis, including the prime minister himself.
“It’s not easy to talk about such a loss,” says Panayiotis’ wife, Eleni, her eyes brimming with tears. “We still feel kind of guilty for being unable – through no fault of our own – to get answers. I’d like to believe that there are people who will choose to talk one day.”
Kathimerini, in a joint investigation with international publication The Intercept and noted reporter James Bamford, spent months researching the case both in Greece and the USA, and now presents, for the first time, testimonies from high-ranking US intelligence officials who either took part or have knowledge of the phone-tapping operation in Greece. The Kathimerini investigation also brought to light for the first time previously unpublished NSA documents pertaining to Greece and the wiretapping scandal that emerged by gaining exclusive access to the archive of former US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.
HELPING WITH SECURITY AHEAD OF THE OLYMPICS
The 2004 Athens Olympics were the first Summer Games to take place after 9/11. Safety concerns were evident in both the international media as well the constant pressure from American officials on their Greek counterparts.
As it emerges from previously unpublished documents from the Snowden archive, US intelligence agencies started drawing up operation plans for the Games some two years in advance. According to one of the documents seen by Kathimerini, at least four NSA strategists had been working on the subject of gathering information for the Athens Olympics since 2002 and, in cooperation with other departments within the agency, ensured “that an analytic attack was in place and that the targets’ social networks are defined”.
“Although the first race, dive, and somersault are still a year away the intelligence community is in full ‘training mode’ for the event,” reads another document, dated 15 August, 2003. “In truth, NSA has been gearing up for the 2004 Olympics for quite some time, in anticipation of playing a larger role than ever before at the international games.”
According to the same document, cooperation between the Greek and the American intelligence agencies was to be very close. “The security organisation that the NSA will support is EYP,” says the document, referring to the Greek National Intelligence Service, while another explains that “the co-location of IC (Intelligence Community) analysts both at the US embassy in Athens as well as at the Greek Intelligence agency” significantly enhanced the capabilities and quality of information collection.
However, despite the fact that cooperation was close and NSA officials had been placed inside EYP, the one bone of contention that remained between the Greek and US authorities in the period leading up to the Games was the technical inability of Greece’s law enforcement to surveil suspicious phone calls and electronic communications on a mass scale. EYP’s capabilities were limited to very localised surveillance within a very specific distance. “From an American point of view, that was terrifyingly primitive,” says Brady Kiesling, who resigned his post as head of the political section of the US Embassy in Athens in protest at the US invasion of Iraq just a few months before the Games.
Under immense pressure from the US, the Public Order Ministry leadership under the PASOK government had already called a meeting in December 2003 between the three cell phone providers at the time (Vodafone, Cosmote, Tim) to discuss how lawful interception could take place.
General elections scheduled for March, however, made it impossible for the necessary – yet politically sensitive – presidential decree to be issued.
However, even after the elections, when a New Democracy government came to power and the ministry was taken over by Giorgos Voulgarakis – who had said in similar meetings in April 2004 that lawful interception was “just a matter of a week’s preparation” on the part of the providers – until the flame was lit at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, no legal framework for lawful taps was in place.
In any case, on 4 August, 2004, some 6,500 lines of code were added to the source code of the software used by Vodafone to operate its network. The developer of that software, which is used by cell phone companies all over the world, was Swedish tech giant Ericsson. The input of those 6,500 lines of code of illegal software activated a subsystem of the Ericsson software called Lawful Intercept, normally used by authorities to intercept phone calls.
The Lawful Intercept subsystem – which up until then was part of the Vodafone network but not active as the provider had not purchased the digital key needed to activate it – was now able to forward a stream of intercepted calls to 14 shadow cell phones and possibly to digital data recorders for storing and processing.
More than a decade since that day, and for the first time, a former high-ranking US intelligence official who was involved with the 2004 phone tapping in Greece openly admits that the secret operation was carried out by the NSA and that, in its initial stage at least, it had the green light from the Greek government: “The Greeks identified terrorist nets, so NSA put these devices in there and they told the Greeks, ‘OK, when it’s done we’ll turn it off.’ They put them in the Athens communications system, with the knowledge and approval of the Greek government, this was to help with security during the Olympics.”
EVIDENCE POINTS TO LARGE NUMBER OF OPERATIVES
According to classified NSA documents from the Snowden archive brought to light by Kathimerini, the preparations of the US intelligence agencies were unprecedented for any event.
According to a classified NSA report seen by Kathimerini, such information was available to the US intelligence community and had, in fact, been collected prior to the Games by the CIA, which “recorded the GSM networks in Athens”, referring to the Global System for Mobile communications.
The NSA documents confirm that the US intelligence mission to Athens during the Games included members of both groups, while TAO – according to a 2004 NSA report – “performed CNE [Computer Network Exploitation] operations against Greek communications providers.”
According to a report by the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ADAE) in 2006 though, the participation of Vodafone insiders was “absolutely necessary” in certain phases of the wiretapping operation. This, as Snowden’s documents show, may have been the work of the CIA.
Another group that works under the NSA is the Special Collection Service (SCS), staffed by the NSA and CIA.
Known inside the agency as F6, the group is not just mentioned in the PowerPoint presentation as one of the ways of accessing the Lawful Intercept subsystem, but also, according to previous NSA document leaks, was permanently headquartered inside the US Embassy in Athens.
Furthermore, a former US intelligence official involved in the wiretapping operation explains that recruiting telecom company employees around the world is standard practice, in which the CIA and the NSA work together. “For example, at a foreign Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, if NSA determines it needs to get access to that system, NSA and/or the CIA in coordination would come up with a mechanism that would allow them to replicate the existing switch to be swapped out. The CIA would then go and seek out the person who had access to that switch, go in there, and then it would be the CIA that would effect the operation. And then the take from it would be exploited by the NSA.”
“Human intelligence guys can provide sometimes the needed physical access without which you just can’t do the signals intelligence activity,” confirms General Michael Hayden, NSA head from 1999 to 2005, who, according to the documents published in the Snowden archive so far, ran America’s biggest domestic bugging operation without the necessary warrants. Asked whether he remembers the Greek bugging case, he said it is “not something I can talk about”.
Chris Inglis, deputy director of the NSA from 2006 to 2014, was also asked whether the agency was involved in the Greek wiretapping, which he neither confirmed nor denied. “I couldn’t say whether NSA was involved in that or any other activity that might have been alleged to be conducted by an intelligence service, let alone NSA,” he said.
So the question of who could have carried out the operation in Greece remained unanswered for years, until the name of William Basil came to the fore.
THE ‘TELEPHONE MAN’ WHO GREW UP ON KARPATHOS
Two months before the bugging operation began, a woman walked into a store on Akti Miaouli Street in Piraeus and bought four cell phones with SIM cards. A 2011 ADAE investigation found that within a few weeks of purchase, the devices were used as shadow phones to receive the calls intercepted from the Vodafone network, while at least one was later used with a SIM card registered to the US Embassy in Athens and made calls to the central exchange, the emergency line, the Marine guard and the FBI office in the building on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. The devices and cards, according to the testimony of the store manager, were purchased by the wife of William Basil, a CIA agent whose family came from the island of Karpathos.
“We used to call him the telephone man,” said a former CIA colleague of Basil’s in Athens. “All we do is we buy burner phones.”
Basil, 65, was born in Baltimore in December 1950. He and his sister travelled to Karpathos when they were still children to witness their father’s second marriage after he divorced their mother, Madeleine. A few months after returning to America, in the early 1960s, the family returned to Karpathos for good. Today, childhood friends on the island still remember ‘Billy’. “He was a bit Americanised,” one of them said. “We were a big group of kids swimming all day beneath the houses at the port. Billy had a canoe; he had things other kids didn’t.”
Basil and his cousin, Nikos Kritikos, grew up in the same house. “Our aunt Marigoula raised us. He’s amazingly smart.” Nikos’ father and Basil’s uncle, retired schoolteacher Manolis Kritikos, remembers Billy as a restless kid with a passion for the island’s history and that of his father’s village. “He enjoyed talking to the elders. And he loved Greece and [the village of] Olympos more than anything.”
When Basil got older he moved to Athens to attend the American Community Schools, graduating in 1968. He returned to the US, enlisted in the army and served in Alaska. At the end of his service he became a deputy sheriff in Baltimore County for a spell and then went on to work, for the next two decades, at the CIA Security Office as a polygraph expert. He grew tired of the job and, citing his knowledge of Greek, applied to and was accepted in the operational arm of the CIA, where he often enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Basil soon found himself serving as secretary at the US Embassy in Athens, even though in reality he worked for the CIA station situated on the top floor of the embassy, as a terrorism expert. “He never hid what he did,” says his cousin, Nikos Kritikos, who believed that Basil was chief of security at the embassy. “He’d often call and say he was in the Middle East. His job was to get a feel of these societies and write reports.”
A colleague from the embassy remembers Basil wearing a bullet-proof vest under his shirt, with a 9mm pistol clipped to his belt and driving an armoured car. It appears that his duties also included maintaining contacts with the Greek security and intelligence services. “He worked with the Greek police and conducted seminars for Greek policemen,” says Kritikos. “He gave the impression that he had friends in high places, that he knew interior and public order ministers.”
LEAVING VODAFONE WAS ‘MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH’
Costas Tsalikidis, 39, was an engineer with a broad range of interests. He liked to go to the Monastiraki market in downtown Athens to look for rare vinyl records. He loved traveling around Greece, while shortly before his death, he had been looking for an apartment for himself and his fiancee. Everyone close to him agrees that there was nothing in his behavior to suggest he could have killed himself.
In the last year of his life he was responsible for redesigning the Vodafone network in light of the Athens Olympics but also for its transition to 3G technology. A person of method, he kept detailed notes in a series of blue notebooks. In one of these, a few weeks before his death, he wrote the word ‘Fever’, citing an overload in parts of the network.
“It is certain that he found something which led to his demise,” says his brother, Panayiotis. A month-and-a-half before Costas was found hanging in front of his bathroom door, on 24 January, 2005 someone had attempted to install additional illegal software at Vodafone’s headquarters in Paeania, east of Athens. By the next morning, thousands of subscribers had called complaining that they were unable to send text messages. The alarm was raised immediately both at Vodafone and at supplier Ericsson, while technicians in Greece and abroad scrambled to find out what was wrong.
A few days later, on January 31, Costas submitted his resignation. He was convinced to take a few days off, from February 2 to 8, and to return to work, at least until a replacement was found. Shortly before that he had told his fiancee – without going into detail – that he was afraid the company was about to go bust. He made her swear she wouldn’t tell anyone. He also said that he felt he had to leave Vodafone, that it was “a matter of life and death”.
After weeks of checks, on Friday 4 March, Ericsson technicians informed Vodafone in Greece that they had found evidence of unauthorised software. The following Monday, the malware was isolated at Ericsson HQ in Sweden, while at Vodafone in Athens, Costas sat in on a number of closed-door meetings where tempers were running high.
“In one visit by his foreign bosses, he was criticised for his work,” Costas’ fiancee said in her testimony to the police. “The phrase ‘take a bucket of shit and stick your heads in it’ was also heard” on that visit, she added.
The day after that, the CEO of Vodafone Greece, Giorgos Koronias, ordered the malware deactivated and removed from the company’s network. The only opportunity the Greek authorities had to catch the perpetrators of the wiretaps in the act was gone for good. That was also the day that Costas had his last telephone conversation with his fiancee.
“He told me he was worried about his mother because she was running a high fever,” she testified. “How can someone who is worried about his mother hang himself at night knowing that she would be the one to find him in the morning?”
The day after Costas’ death, on 10 March, 2005, Koronias asked Yiannis Angelou, head of the PM’s political office, to schedule a meeting with Karamanlis on the issue of the wiretaps. The premier was in Madrid, so Angelou arranged it so that Koronias would meet with him and Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis. That was also the day that the presidential decree allowing wiretaps was published in the Government Gazette, bearing the signatures of Voulgarakis, among other officials. It was the one thing missing before the Olympics – a decree granting authorities the permission they needed to conduct legal wiretaps via telecom providers.
THE POLITICAL BURIAL OF AN INVESTIGATION
“Coincidences happen,” says a high-ranking official in the Karamanlis government in regard to the publication of the decree the next day after Costas’ death.
When confronted by Kathimerini with the testimony of a former US intelligence agent involved in the Athens operation who said that the wiretaps began “with the knowledge and approval of the Greek government”, the former government official didn’t have to think twice before responding: “That makes sense. I’m not surprised.”
The Greek government that had given the green light for the wiretaps to start did not ensure that they would ever end, so the trap that had been set up for potential terrorists eyeing the Athens Games as a target ended up snaring the government itself. Why did this happen? According to a Snowden document, joint CIA-NSA task forces often intercept the communications of host countries, as they “on a number of occasions and for whatever reason have been unwilling to share information”.
A former NSA official with extensive bugging experience offers his own explanation: “They never (remove it),” the official said with a laugh, about such software.
“Once you have access, you have access. You have the opportunity to put implants in, that’s an opportunity.”
Two weeks after the death of Costas Tsalikidis, in a closed meeting between Karamanlis’ associates at the Maximos Mansion, the idea was floated to bury the whole affair. According to sources close to the former premier, he quashed the plan over fears it could emerge later.
Meanwhile, Basil left Athens for Sudan. A few months later, on 4 August, 2005, he was issued a visa by the Greek Embassy in Khartoum and returned to Greece with a diplomatic passport granting him full immunity.
The investigation into Costas’ death was left to the police, without the family being informed about the wider implications, while the case of the wiretaps was forwarded for preliminary investigation by then head of the Athens prosecutor’s office and later justice minister Dimitris Papangelopoulos, as well as to EYP.
In February 2006, Minister of State Theodoros Roussopoulos, Voulgarakis and Justice Minister Anastasis Papaligouras briefed the media on the affair and said that an 11-month secret investigation had not yielded any tangible evidence. At the same press conference, Voulgarakis praised Koronias for his handling of the issue on the part of Vodafone.
The Tsakalidis family has had its own cross to bear these past 10 years as the case has been forwarded from one prosecutor to another – well-known names in judicial circles – without result and was at times even closed despite the plethora of evidence and the clearly perfunctory investigations.
The case appeared to gather fresh momentum when it was undertaken by magistrate Dimitris Foukas. In 2014, reports regarding his findings made mention of an American agent who may have knowledge of the bugging operation. That same period, according to well-informed sources, Basil made a call to a prominent lawyer, Ilias Anagnostopoulos, who met in person with the prosecutor and said that his client was willing to testify.
If there are questions then of course I will answer them,” the lawyer was told by Basil, who, before retiring from service, was promoted to CIA deputy station chief in Islamabad and later returned to the US, where he was appointed to chief of human resources in the service’s counterterrorism unit. In the meantime, Basil’s name and speculation about his involvement in the operation was leaked to the Greek press. Worried about the attention, he called Anagnostopoulos again and told him to drop the subject.
His cousin, Nikos Kritikos, does not believe that Basil could be responsible for the bugging.
“There is no way he would do what they say he did,” said Kritikos. “They know how much he loves Greece and they would have sent someone else to do something like this. There’s no way he did it.”
The last time he was seen and photographed in Athens was at his daughter’s wedding in 2013.
In February, Foukas issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of espionage and violating communications privacy laws based on the evidence suggesting that his wife bought the shadow phones from Piraeus on his behalf.
The magistrate also drafted a report – something that legal experts say is unusual at this stage of proceedings. The document, which does not make any mention of Costas Tsalikidis’ death, was lumped together with other wiretapping cases allegedly involving EYP officers, as well as with that related to a suspected attempt on Karamanlis’ life. No connection between the cases is made in the documents; they are simply filed together.
Foukas asserts that the hardest part of the case is knowing “where criminal liability begins and politics end”.
For its part, the Tsalikidis family, uninterested in political games, insists on asking questions about why and how Costas died.