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U.S. to Shut Spy Station in Germany

BERLIN (AP) - For years, European critics have suspected that a U.S. Army listening post set against the snow-peaked Bavarian Alps does more than just spy for the military.

Allegedly part of a super-secret global eavesdropping network the United States has never confirmed, the Bad Aibling station now is set for closure next year because it's no longer needed, U.S. officials said Friday.

About all the Pentagon says about the Bad Aibling Station, located some 35 miles southeast of Munich, is that it helps U.S. forces keep tabs on the Balkans.

But in Germany, media reports and politicians persistently linked the spy post in recent years to alleged attempts by the U.S. National Security Agency to spy for economic advantage after the end of the Cold War. The NSA denies it conducts industrial espionage.

Just this week, a European Parliament report cited Bad Aibling among some 20 stations worldwide believed to play a role in the U.S.-led spy network.

The report, prepared after seven months of testimony by communications and security experts, concluded that the network - dubbed Echelon - exists despite U.S. denials.

It was allegedly set up at the start of the Cold War for intelligence gathering and has grown into a girdle of stations mainly meant to intercept private and commercial communications, not military intelligence.

However, the parliament's vice president, Gerhard Schmid, conceded the group could not prove that Americans were passing on European trade secrets to give U.S. business an advantage.

The report also backed off an earlier study by the European Parliament that claimed the spy network listens in on ``billions of messages per hour,'' including telephone calls, fax transmissions and private e-mails.

Still, German officials are unlikely to miss the station, which is scheduled to close Sept. 30, 2002. The base will be handed back to Germany - minus the snooping equipment, said Shirley Startzman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command.

``Nearly 12 years after the end of the Cold War, this is an overdue step,'' said Wolfgang Gerhardt, leader of a small pro-business party in the German parliament.

``The Americans have never been able to banish rumors that it was also used for economic espionage against German companies,'' he said.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported last June that German lawmakers were invited inside the Bad Aibling station in an unusually open attempt by U.S. officials to dispel rumors of economic espionage.

The lawmakers were told that the U.S. listeners tune in only to Russian satellites and telephone conversations in Yugoslavia as well as African crisis regions, the report said.

An NSA spokeswoman at the secretive agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., on Friday declined to comment on that report. The spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only that Bad Aibling's tasks would be performed by ``other technologies'' once it shuts down.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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