Trans Atlantic espionage claimed by German wind company

Industrial espionage has allegedly been conducted by agents of the United States intelligence service against at least 30 German businesses including wind company Enercon. European press reports have circulated about the electronic theft of wind turbine blueprints from Enercon by a department of the CIA. These, it is claimed, were passed on to rival company Kenetech Windpower of California and formed the basis for Kenetech's successful application to have Enercon turbines banned from American soil.

An extraordinary tale of grand scale industrial espionage supposedly conducted by agents of the United States intelligence service against at least 30 German businesses including wind company Enercon is unfolding in the European press. Television, radio and newspaper reports describe a pattern of satellite spying, data tapping, terrestrial listening posts and even the electronic theft of wind turbine blueprints from Enercon by the US National Security Agency (NSA), a department of the CIA. These, it is claimed, were passed on to rival company Kenetech Windpower of California and formed the basis for Kenetech's successful application to have Enercon turbines banned from American soil.

The ban was issued by the International Trade Commission (ITC), which, after studying documentary evidence from Kenetech, ruled that Enercon's design breached a patent held by the US company (Windpower Monthly, May 1996). Kenetech declared bankruptcy a little over three years ago, shortly after the ITC upheld its application to keep Enercon turbines out of the US. The California company had previously sued Enercon and its then partner New World Power Corp in January 1995 for alleged patent infringement (Windpower Monthly, March 1995), preventing the partnership from clinching a major utility order for a wind farm at Big Spring in Texas. The patent is now owned by Enron Wind, a division of US energy giant Enron. Enron's wind subsidiary in Germany, Tacke Windenergie, is the country's second largest wind turbine manufacturer and one of Enercon's main rivals on home soil. Both companies have "power electronics," the technology at the heart of the patent dispute, which can give wind turbines an edge over those from other companies.

The espionage story, along with the improbable sounding account of Enercon's role in it, burst into the public conscience in Britain on April 11, with a version of it, for the first time in English, rendered by the Sunday Telegraph, a major national newspaper. The Telegraph's report followed an almost identical story published two weeks earlier in the renowned German news magazine Der Spiegel. It had picked up the tale from two television documentary reports, aired in April and September last year. Enercon's involvement is based on an earlier charge brought by the company against Kenetech for alleged spying, which is currently being investigated by police in the German town of Oldenburg (Windpower Monthly, May 1996).

Spies in the sky

Prior to Enercon's spying claim, in January 1998 a report commissioned by the European Parliament had charged that the NSA, under a program named "Echelon," had the capacity to intercept and analyse virtually all electronic communications in Europe and beyond. Debate in the parliament fizzled out by the autumn, in part because so little was known about Echelon, although it may be revived sometime later this year.

The system has actually been in existence in one form or another for decades. Since the late 1940s, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have agreed to share and swap signals intelligence. Echelon, though, is far more powerful-and thus more scary-because it can now intercept millions of messages daily from phones, faxes, emails, mobile phones and telex and feed them into super computers which search at high speed for key words-usually relating to terrorist or national security issues. The fear in parts of Europe and Asia as well as in Russia is that Echelon is also monitoring sensitive commercial information and feeding it back to industries at home. Whether the NSA is utilising its theoretical capacity to spy on companies the size of Enercon is not at all clear.

In the beginning

The Oldenburg police investigation started in April 1996, two years after Bob Jans, director of Kenetech's Netherlands office, Kenetech employee Ruth Heffernan and German wind industry consultant Ubbo de Witt visited one of the first Enercon E40 turbines in operation. The three were later alleged to have carried out a thorough inspection of the machine in the absence of the owner on March 21, 1994, including taking photographs and accessing information from the machine's control system (Windpower Monthly, May and June 1996). The extent of any law breaking involved is now the subject of the police investigation.

Last month, Oldenburg's senior public prosecutor, Gerhard Kayser, said police investigations into Enercon's claims are continuing. Following the article in Der Spiegel in late March, claiming the NSA had tapped public telephone lines between Enercon's headquarters and its production facilities five kilometres away, the Oldenburg Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) invited Enercon to make a new statement. It hopes this can throw new light on the matter, says Kayser. Enercon had not responded late last month.

Attack from Space

Industrial espionage, even in the wind industry, is not unheard of. It is the reported extent of the spying involved in this case, however, which has captured the imagination of the press and public. Der Spiegel's article, entitled "Attack from space," opens with the revelation that US secret service agents are regularly snooping on German industry, using high-tech equipment to tap information flowing through telephone cables and computer networks. Enercon has energetically fed the media fire, giving a string of interviews confirming the stories. What the company hopes to achieve is unclear, although the publicity could stir up public opinion against the United Sates to the extent that US wind companies, such as Enron's Tacke Windenergie, have a harder time competing in Germany. Competition between the European and American wind industries has at times been fierce. Enercon's lawyer, Stefan Knotnerus-Meyer, admits the press attention is welcome, but, he says, what the company is seeking is a fair playing field.

Even if the police succeed with their criminal prosecution it would not have any direct ramifications for the ban of Enercon turbines issued by the ITC, a US body despite its international sounding title. Currently, Kenetech's patents-now owned by Enron Wind-are being formally re-examined by the US Patent Office, a move that could lead to them being narrowed, thrown out, or remaining intact (Windpower Monthly, November 1998). Criminal allegations of espionage, even if made in the United States, are outside the jurisdiction of the US Patent Office.

Story unfolds

The first journalist apparently on the trail of the NSA agents-though as yet there is no substantiated proof of spying activities-was Jörg Heimbrecht, working for a Westdeutsche Rundfunk (WDR) television program, Plusminus. His first report, "Eavesdropping on the Internet," was shown on April 14, 1998. This aired the story of the visit by the trio on Kenetech's payroll to the early E40 unit, a coup planned by the NSA, according to the report. Last month Heimbrecht confirmed he had spoken directly with an NSA employee, not interviewed in the television program, who informed him of the spying on Enercon.

The documentary features an anonymous interview with a man said to be a current employee of the German internal intelligence service, the Bundesverfassungsschutz. The man interviewed claims he knows of over 50 cases of industrial spying conducted by his American counterparts, though he does not name Enercon. "If we come across such activities we are told to hold off by our bosses. We are usually not allowed to inform the public prosecutors, nor the companies concerned-out of consideration for our allies," he says.

Heimbrecht's second TV report, also for Plusminus, was transmitted on September 8 last year. It tells the story of how, in a cloak and dagger operation, Heimbrecht was offered DEM 14,000 ($7860) by the German intelligence service if he revealed his information sources. In the program, Heimbrecht takes viewers to the Enercon research laboratory, where he says electronic blueprints of the new turbines are drawn up and transmitted to the production workshops via Telekom data lines. These, he reports, were tapped by the NSA.

The reaction

Enercon, which only learned of the claims of hi-tech espionage against it after being approached by Heimbrecht, appears as the outraged and innocent victim in the news documentary. Subscribing without hesitation to the seemingly implausible conspiracy theory, the company's Knottnerus-Meyer builds the drama of the report, telling of steps subsequently taken by Enercon to secure its property. "Enercon has laid new telecommunication lines in order not to be dependent on the Telekom lines. Employees who have access to sensitive data have been identified and Enercon makes sure that it is not known outside the company who these employees are," he says. The Enercon computer centre is kept locked, Knottnerus-Meyer tells his TV audience.

According to the Plusminus report, Telekom's data communication-telephone conversations, fax and electronic correspondence-is frequently relayed via satellite. It is this information which is intercepted by American spy satellites and directed to a ground station at Bad Aibling in Bavaria, where the German headquarters of NSA is based, Heimbrecht says. Here, claims Heimbrecht, new developments and patents from German industry are evaluated and directed on to American industry. According to the Plusminus report, the NSA has penetrated not only the ISDN telephone network of Enercon but also Airbus, Hoechst, Siemens and software company SAP.

Whether this indeed happened at Enercon has yet to be proved. The American embassy in Berlin refuses to comment on the activities of the NSA. "We do not comment on security issues," says a spokesperson. It is also unclear if Enercon used ISDN lines in 1994, but customers in the small town of Aurich, where Enercon is based, were able to connect to the ISDN net from December 15, 1993, says Hans Wilkens of Deutsche Telekom. And tapping of ordinary analogue lines is quite possible, points out Knottnerus-Meyer.

Last month he confirmed that Enercon will do all it can to assist the police investigation. "Should the public prosecutor decide to drop the case, we will appeal to force charges," he assures.

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