Neo-Nazi Cell Investigation: Berlin Suspected of Withholding Sensitive Information
A primary suspect in the ongoing investigation into the National Socialist Underground, the neo-Nazi terror cell suspected of having murdered 10 people, worked as an informant for the city-state of Berlin. But senior officials have proven uncooperative in the investigation.
The final chapter in the 10-year career of police informant Thomas S. was not particularly auspicious. It lasted all of 10 minutes. Last Sunday, two top officials from the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) in Berlin traveled to the eastern German state of Saxony with a final request for their agency's former top source: Would he be willing to rescind the confidentiality agreement that they made with him years ago?
But by then, Sept. 16, his "confidentiality" had already been seriously compromised. The double life of this one-time heavyweight on the neo-Nazi scene had been exposed three days earlier. Since the beginning of this year, this man -- who served the Berlin LKA from Nov. 2000 until Jan. 2011 as informant no. 562 -- has been suspected of aiding and abetting the National Socialist Underground (NSU), the neo-Nazi terrorist cell that is believed to have killed at least 10 people between 2000 and 2007.
This marks the first time since the death of NSU terrorists Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos last autumn that the affair surrounding the failure of Germany's intelligence agencies has engulfed a senior government official. The interior minister for the city-state of Berlin, Frank Henkel -- a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- is under pressure. Not only did Henkel's LKA in Berlin presumably keep important information from its informant to itself in 2002, recently leaked internal documents also show that the police apparently tried to the keep the NSU Investigative Committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, in the dark about the case.
It wasn't until last March that the Berlin LKA finally admitted to federal prosecutors that this suspect in the case, by far the most important current criminal case in Germany, worked for years as a police informant. This was followed by months of negotiations over what should be done with the explosive information.
One of Henkel's main arguments for not informing the parliamentary investigative committee is that he maintains federal prosecutors had requested confidentiality: "My police department heads gave me credible assurances that there was an agreement between the (Berlin) police and Karlsruhe," said Henkel, referring to the location of the headquarters of the Federal Prosecutor's Office. Henkel went on to say that the details were to be "kept secret until any potential endangerment to the informant and ongoing investigations had been assessed." Furthermore, Berlin's deputy police superintendent Margarete Koppers says it was agreed that information would not be released "either by the Federal Prosecutor's Office or by authorities in Berlin".
But a confidential memo tells a different story. Margarete Koppers*, deputy head of the Berlin LKA state security department, wrote a message that reveals that the Berlin authorities had primarily one goal in mind: They wanted to withhold secret files from the investigative committee. On April 3, Henkel's chief investigator in the case explicitly refused to hand over reports on informant no. 562 to federal prosecutors because, when "sending the documents," as Koppers put it, "it cannot be ruled out that the investigative committee could have access to them."
The Federal Prosecutor's Office, however, realized early on that the material would have to be forwarded to the committee. According to Koppers, on March 29 the federal prosecutor assigned to the case told him during a phone conversation that he was "in fact sure that the files would immediately have to be presented to the investigative committee." Koppers saw this as an important argument to withhold the file from the Federal Prosecutor's Office in addition to the parliamentary committee. On April 3, the police official wrote that "the request to transfer all files" could "unfortunately not be met." Henkel's team was ultimately only prepared to hand over a "certified report" in which the informant's name did not appear. The committee was not informed by federal prosecutors until July.
Covering Up Mistakes
The bluntly frank tone of the memo has put the interior minister under even greater pressure. Henkel has been advised of the case since March 9, and he has always steadfastly maintained that nothing has been covered up -- a claim that has prompted the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper to comment that he now "looks like a fool" in public.
Critics are asking whether Henkel and his law enforcement team were really only concerned about the health and well-being of their source -- or whether Berlin state security police were merely trying to cover up their own mistakes.
There are a number of entries in the file on informant Thomas S. that raise eyebrows: Only four days after he was recruited on Nov. 21, 2000, the source in Saxony offered the Berlin LKA information on the neo-Nazi scene in the eastern German town of Chemnitz. "They are really well organized there," he said, "and I can tell you a lot about it." Apparently, nobody took him up on his offer.
This was a serious mistake, as we now know: It was precisely this political scene in Chemnitz that served as the initial refuge for the murderous trio of Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe. Here, protected by clandestine neo-Nazi structures, the right-wing extremists went underground in 1998 and formed the NSU.
Had the Berlin police officials running the informants more carefully checked their source before recruiting him, they might have noticed that this right-wing extremist with a criminal record maintained close contacts to the trio during the 1990s. Back in 1998, their LKA colleagues in the German state of Thuringia were already monitoring S. -- who had a brief relationship with Zschäpe -- as a suspected contact for the fugitives.
According to the files, however, the Berlin authorities focused on other information from their source, whose identity they endeavored to shield from other agencies. When Thomas S. became a suspect in a case involving the neo-Nazi band Landser in Saxony, they were afraid that his phone was tapped. In order to maintain clandestine contact with their informant, the Berlin LKA provided him with a "clean" SIM card under the codename "Dieter Müller" -- and the Saxony LKA was intentionally left uninformed of the move. When the Berlin police wanted to reach their informant, they sent him a text message with the code phrase: "Call mom."
Investigators apparently failed to notice that this passing remark by S. -- and details that emerged at later meetings -- was information pertaining to the terrorist trio. Today, the LKA says that it was focusing on the right-wing extremist music scene at the time. It's now up to the committee to clarify how much this information was worth, which S. has been careful to note that he only received by word of mouth. Henkel is also expected to testify before the committee soon.
Thomas S. has meanwhile admitted that he had close contacts with the cell until 1998. After the story broke about the NSU, he was questioned seven times, most recently on Aug. 7. He answered all the questions that the Berlin authorities had apparently never asked him. S. even admitted that he had supplied the trio with roughly one kilo (2.2 pounds) of TNT before the terrorists went into hiding. He also provided the names of people who helped the fugitives, along with the locations of apartments where the neo-Nazis had hidden -- right in Chemnitz.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that Oliver Stepien, head of the Berlin LKA state security department, wrote the memo. In fact, Margarete Koppers, deputy head of the Berlin LKA state security department, wrote the memo on letterhead belonging to Stepien. We regret the error.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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