The World from Berlin: BND Agents 'Knew What They Were Doing'

German intelligence agents have been caught spying on a German journalist -- again. The controversy over e-mails collected from a SPIEGEL reporter has become a national scandal. Chancellor Merkel says her faith in her spy chief has been rattled, while German papers wonder if the service can be trusted at all.

Ernst Uhrlau, top German spy.
DDP

Ernst Uhrlau, top German spy.

Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has spied on journalists before: In 2005 it emerged that German reporters were placed under surveillance by agents who wanted to ferret out the sources of leaks from the BND. It was a big scandal. There was a public uproar, and the government installed a new BND president, Ernst Uhrlau, who swore to make the service more "transparent."

The latest scandal is like déjà vu. E-mails by a SPIEGEL journalist have been collected by German intelligence agents. The apparent target of the surveillance was Amin Farhang, Afghanistan's commerce minister, who traded e-mails with SPIEGEL reporter Susanne Koelbl between June and November 2006. She was sending him pieces of an in-progress book about Afghanistan. Farhang lived in Germany for several years and holds a German passport.

Her correspondence was retrieved using a so-called "Trojan horse" software that invaded the minister's computer system and sent copies of his e-mail back to the BND. In the mean time Germany's highest court has severely restricted the use of spyware against German citizens.

The new scandal came to light only after Uhrlau personally apologized to Koelbl last week. A government spokesperson said Friday that Chancellor Angela Merkel's faith in Uhrlau has been "disturbed" but not "destroyed" -- and what Merkel thinks matters, because she can hire or fire the top German spy.

SPIEGEL has criticized the surveillance, while many German newspapers on Friday are upset that no one in the government was told about the breach in policy before Uhrlau made his apology. They're complaining about a lack of "transparency," and accountability, in Uhrlau's BND.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Everyone who swore this would never happen again, that (the first case of spying) was a very regrettable and unusual lapse, was either overhasty or dishonest."

"The BND president has tried to ease people's minds over the last few days by saying (Koelbl's e-mails) had been caught coincidentally in the BND's net. But it was a deliberate catch. Employees of the BND systematically collected correspondence between a minister in Kabul and a SPIEGEL journalist. The employees discussed whether their work was in line with the so-called G-10 law (an article that protects the right to privacy in letters, packages and telecommunications) -- and then went on with it. They knew what they were doing."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"It hasn't even been three years since the BND's last scandal, over systematic domestic spying on journalists … (That scandal) led to an internal directive forbidding surveillance of reporters. The directive is still in force, according to the BND. But we now know that only a short while later, in June 2006, a new, half-year bugging operation was mounted against a German journalist -- this time in Afghanistan. There are hints that she was not the only one."

"The way these spy scandals have been handled suggests again, colorfully, that there is not enough democratic oversight of the BND … Because in the current case, again, the public was informed far too late about what happened. This sanctioned cloak-and-dagger stuff needs to end -- especially since the BND keeps proving that it doesn't deserve even the slightest benefit of the doubt."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The German intelligence service is -- unlike the French service, or even the British, where James Bond has his origins -- a step-child of domestic politics, funded from the back rooms of the chancellor's budget. No one understands this better than Ernst Uhrlau, who was hired to run the agency as a reliable and universally esteemed professional, to reform it from top to bottom and to usher it into the modern world."

"The president (of the BND) has to steer a ship that is overburdened with partisan politics and often springs a leak. There is indeed a lot to clean up and explain, but above all (the question of) responsibility and the reticence of legislators from every party. It's worth reminding ourselves that a war is on in Afghanistan, and German soldiers require every protection -- from our intelligence services, too."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The central problem is that many in the (intelligence) service seem to think they have license to do as they please. The main reason for this is lax (parliamentary) supervision. Some German legislators who should be watching the BND know less about what the agency does than journalists with good connections. Talking about 'oversight' in this sense borders on laughable."

"It's also absurd that the oversight committee first learned about this latest case long after Uhrlau had apologized to the journalist in question. That the BND president found it unimportant to inform legislators about the case not only exposes Uhrlau – with his promises of more transparency -- to a ruinous scandal. It also shows that without a broad reform of parliamentary oversight, the BND threatens to become the 'pigsty' which the opposition has long accused it of being."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 3pm CET

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