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A Death in Athens

By: TheIntercept.com

JUST OUTSIDE THE MAIN DOWNTOWN part of Athens lies Kolonos, an old Athenian neighborhood near the archaeological park of Akadimia Platonos, where Plato used to teach. Along the maze of narrow streets, flower-filled balconies hang above open-air markets, and locals gather for hours at lazy sidewalk cafes, sipping demitasse cups of espresso and downing shots of Ouzo in quick gulps.

It was a neighborhood Costas Tsalikidis knew well. He lived at No. 18 Euclid Street, a loft apartment just down the hall from his parents. Slim and dark-haired, with a strong chin and a sly smile, he was born in Athens 38 years earlier to a middle-class family in the construction business. Talented in math and physics from an early age, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens, considered the most prestigious college in Greece, where he specialized in telecommunications, and later obtained his master’s in computer science in England. Putting his skills to good use, for the last 11 years he had worked for Vodafone-Panafon, also known as Vodafone Greece, the country’s largest cell phone company, and was promoted in 2001 to network-planning manager at the company’s headquarters in the trendy Halandri section of Athens.

On March 9, 2005, Costas’ brother, Panagiotis, dropped by the apartment. He thought he’d have a coffee before a business meeting scheduled for that morning. But as he entered the building, he found his mother, Georgia, running up and down the corridor yelling for help.

“Cut him down!” she was saying. “Cut him down!”

Panagiotis had no idea what she was talking about until he went inside his brother’s apartment and saw Costas hanging from a rope tied to pipes above the lintel of his bathroom door, an old wooden chair nearby. He and his mother cut the rope and laid Costas down on the bed.

The day before his death, Costas’ boss at Vodafone had ordered that a newly discovered code — a powerful and sophisticated bug — be deactivated and removed from its systems. The wiretap, placed by persons unknown, targeted more than 100 top officials, including then Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and his wife, Natassa; the mayor of Athens; members of the Ministerial Cabinet; as well as journalists, capturing not only the country’s highest secrets, but also its most intimate conversations. The question was, who did it?

For a year, the eavesdropping case remained secret, but when the affair finally became public, it was regarded as Greece’s Watergate. One newspaper called it “a scandal of monumental proportions.” And at its center was the dark underside of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. While the athletes were competing for medals as millions watched, far in the shadows spies had hacked into the country’s major telecom systems to listen and record.

A decade later, Costas’ death is caught up in an investigation into what now appears to have been a U.S. covert operation in Greece. Last February, Greek authorities took the extraordinary step of issuing an international arrest warrant for a CIA official the Greeks believe was a key figure in the operation while based in Athens. Unnoticed by the U.S. press, the warrant was a nearly unprecedented action by an allied country. The intelligence official, identified as William George Basil, was accused of espionage and eavesdropping. But by then he had already left the country, and the U.S. government, as it has done for the past 10 years, continues to stonewall Greek authorities on the agency’s involvement.

The Greek charges only touch the surface, however, and Basil may be less a key figure than simply a spy guilty of poor tradecraft. An investigation by The Intercept has uncovered not only the role of the CIA, but also that of the NSA, as well as how and why the operation was carried out. The investigation began while I was producing a documentary for PBS NOVA on cyberwarfare, scheduled to air on October 14, for which some of the interviews were conducted. In addition, I have had exclusive access to highly classified and previously unreported NSA documents released by Edward Snowden.

The Intercept, along with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, interviewed over two dozen people familiar with the wiretapping case, ranging from U.S. intelligence officials and Greek government officials to those involved in the investigation and its aftermath. Many of those interviewed agreed to talk on condition that their names not be used, fearing criminal prosecution for speaking on intelligence matters or professional retribution. While some questions remain, the evidence points to a massive illegal eavesdropping program that may have led to Costas’ tragic death.

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