BND Scandal: How German Spies Eavesdropped on an Afghan Ministry
Part 3: 'Speechless and Outraged'
Two parliamentarians, members of the German parliament's intelligence oversight committee, the Parliamentary Control Panel (PKG), received a letter in mid-February 2008. According to the distribution list, SPIEGEL was supposedly also sent a copy of the letter, but it never reached the magazine.
The letter, apparently written by an anonymous BND employee, described "an unusual, additional case of surveillance of a journalist." The whistleblower, who would eventually play a key role in divulging the affair, wrote that the BND was "attempting to cover up the operation." Without the incriminating letter, neither the Chancellery nor the members of the Bundestag would likely ever have learned of the wiretapping activities.
Parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen, who belongs to the center-right Christian Democratic Union, paid the additional postage for the letter, which did not have a stamp. He then read it and, on Feb. 25, forwarded it to the Chancellery. The office of Thomas de Maizière, the head of the Chancellery, contacted BND President Uhrlau on Feb. 26.
It was only then that the BND began a comprehensive investigation of the incident. Lo and behold, the legal expert who had raised objections to the surveillance in the first place still had a few copies of the Koelbl e-mails sitting in her files, a full 15 months after receiving the order to eliminate all evidence. This time she complied, and destroyed the documents.
At first, Uhrlau neglected to notify the SPIEGEL reporter. Koelbl, however, had in the meantime received tip-offs -- vague at first, but then more specific -- that her e-mails had been read, and she requested a meeting with Uhrlau. The BND president only admitted to the monitoring when directly asked about it by Koelbl during the meeting. SPIEGEL began investigating its legal options, including the possibility of criminal charges.
Farhang himself was also stunned by the BND's intelligence assault on him and his ministry. "I am speechless and deeply outraged," says Farhang. "The Germans apparently fail to understand what my involvement in this case could mean for me. In Afghanistan, one is quickly suspected of being a spy, even when one is only the victim of an unbelievably despicable act like this one."
This raises the question of what exactly the role of an intelligence service is in a country like Afghanistan. Should it be permitted to practice all of the tools of its trade there? Or should it exercise restraint when the risk of collateral damage in the foreign policy arena is clearly too great?
The BND is traditionally very active in Afghanistan, where its operations sometimes stretch the limits of what is acceptable. When 38 Afghan politicians and clan leaders convened at a United Nations-led summit at the Hotel Petersberg outside Bonn in November 2001, "some of us felt distinctly uneasy," recalls one intelligence agent today.
According to the agent, the number of BND informers at the conference ran into double figures, with several ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's interim government acting as informants for German intelligence. In fact, there were so many informants that a debate erupted at BND headquarters in Pullach over whether the agency had too much access and "whether we should perhaps consider deactivating some of our sources." That was exactly what happened.
When relations between two allied countries are at risk, as they are at present, one would like to see the head of the BND take matters into his own hands, rather than leaving it to someone else such as the head of one of his agency's departments.
'Appalled and Disgusted'
Until now, the German-Afghan relationship, says Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, "was a very good one" -- "was" being the operative word.
For a number of hours on a Sunday morning two weeks ago, Spanta, 54, wondered if he himself could have been the target of the German surveillance operation. "Suddenly you remember all the e-mails you wrote," says Spanta. "You go back and read through each and every one of them, checking to see if you might have written something objectionable."
On the morning of his interview, the normally calm Spanta is practically unrecognizable. Fidgeting nervously in his baroque chair, he sits, gesticulating, in front of an oil painting which depicts the former glory of his now-devastated country. "I am appalled and disgusted by these methods, which have no place in a constitutional state," he says. He adds that he attempted several times in the previous week to reach the German foreign minister, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but to no avail. (Steinmeier has since telephoned Spanta to apologize for the incident.)
That the Americans might do something like this, says Spanta, who, like Farhang, studied in Germany, "was clear to us." But the Afghan government would "never have considered it possible" that such an attack would have come from Germany, "our closest friend, the country in which I always felt safe as a democrat." "I was shocked," he says, but adds: "We will remain friends. I don't want to provoke a big scandal." Then he says: "This sort of thing must never happen again."
A delegation of senior German government officials will find itself listening to similarly strong language this week. Spanta expects diplomats from the German Foreign Ministry to offer both an explanation of the operation and an apology when they travel to Kabul in preparation for a June donors' meeting in Paris.
The domestic aftermath of the affair is just as serious as its international repercussions. The BND is clearly out of touch with the current political debate in Germany. For months, German politicians have been grappling with thorny questions about the constitutional state and the relationship between freedom and security. On the one side are the law enforcement agencies and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, who has just presented draft legislation that would, among other things, allow the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) to install video cameras in private residences.
On the other side is a widespread feeling of unease in the face of an ever-expanding surveillance arsenal, which the Federal Constitutional Court emphasized in a recent groundbreaking ruling on online surveillance. In essence, the decision allows the law enforcement authorities, in emergency situations, to do what is absolutely necessary to ward off specific threats that, for example, threaten human lives. On the other hand, the authorities must refrain from resorting to steps that are technically feasible but not essential.
Although the German court's decision to allow online surveillance relates to the German domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, it can be applied just as easily to other law enforcement agencies. In addition, the Federal Constitutional Court used the opportunity to devise a basic right for computer users, under which the "confidentiality and integrity of information technology systems" will be considered a constitutional right in the future. The BND will also be forced to submit to the new standard. For the time being, the agency is contributing to a general sense of unease about the government's lust for data, especially since it clearly acted illegally.
- Part 1: How German Spies Eavesdropped on an Afghan Ministry
- Part 2: Bending the Rules
- Part 3: 'Speechless and Outraged'
- Part 4: A Menial Sin?
© DER SPIEGEL 18/2008
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