AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 51/2008

'Those Guys Are Heroes' How German Agents Helped Pave the Way into Iraq

The German government has long denied that its intelligence agents in Baghdad provided meaningful help prior to and during the US invasion of Iraq. US military personnel, though, have told SPIEGEL a vastly different story.

By John Goetz, and


He would make the perfect witness. The tall, slim retired US general has nothing but good things to say about the Germans. He says they are "reliable" and extremely trustworthy. Most of all, though, he knows things that German parliamentarians would like to know.

But General James Marks is not a witness, nor is he ever likely to be one. The German parliamentary committee charged with investigating the German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), prefers to question Germans in its effort to find out what role the agency played during the Iraq war. Those asked to testify tend to be government employees and, therefore, dependent on the government. Americans have not thus far been summoned. Indeed, no effort to do so has been made.

Still, a man like Marks would have a lot to say. He could talk about the spring of 2003, when he was sitting in a windowless, air-conditioned briefing room at the US military's Camp Doha in the Kuwaiti desert, reading the reports of two BND agents who held out in Baghdad during the war. And he could talk about how the information provided by the Germans was incorporated into the situation reports he presented in daily videoconferences to General Tommy Franks, head of the US invading forces, and sometimes to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In the spring of 2003, Marks headed up the military intelligence efforts both before and during the American campaign. It was his job to ensure that the 115,000 US troops didn't run into any surprises as they advanced toward Baghdad. All information relevant to the war ended up on his desk. By virtue of this position, Marks, more than almost anyone else, knows how important the reports provided by the two Germans were for the American war effort.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will testify before the parliamentary investigative committee on Thursday. When the Iraq war began in early 2003, Steinmeier was head of Germany's secret services as well as being then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff. Schröder, for his part, owed his re-election in September 2002 primarily to his tough opposition to US plans to invade Iraq.

Rewriting History?

In February 2003, Schröder promised Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, that there would be "no direct or indirect participation in a war." And yet, by that point, his right-hand-man Steinmeier had already secretly approved the deployment of the two BND agents to Baghdad. The details of this mission began to be revealed in January 2006. And since then, the same questions have been asked repeatedly, and not just in the parliamentary investigative committee.

What was the assignment given to the two men? Did the information they provided support the American war effort? Was German government criticism of the United States just one side of the coin? Did Schröder's and Steinmeier's BND secretly help the Americans militarily?

For Steinmeier, nothing less than his political credibility is at stake. He is the most prominent of Schröder's close associates still in power today, and he will challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel as the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor in general elections next fall. Is Steinmeier now trying to rewrite part of history?

Since January 2006, Steinmeier, now Germany's vice chancellor and foreign minister, has stated that the government's political standard for the BND's mission in Baghdad was clear: No "active support" of combat operations in Iraq. He has also said: "If an embassy or a hospital was prevented from being hit, then it can't be called a double standard. In that case, it was about saving innocent human lives."

The current governing coalition, which pairs Steinmeier's Social Democrats (SPD) with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), also stuck to the same official line in its report on the Baghdad mission: "No support for the US's offensive, strategic aerial war. No transfer of information with direct relevance to the US's tactical air and ground war effort." Berlin has also insisted: "The responses the BND provided to US requests for information satisfied these criteria." According to the classified, censored part of the report, the information coming from the BND agents was not suitable for US purposes.

But according to US military officials involved in the Iraq war, these statements have little to do with reality. SPIEGEL spoke with more than 20 active and retired American soldiers both from Central Command (Centcom) -- which coordinates US military activity in the Middle East, Egypt and Central Asia -- and from the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) in charge of the ground forces in the invasion of Iraq. Among those spoken to were critics of the Bush administration, who cannot be accused of wanting to shift political responsibility to Germany. All of them dealt with the reports filed by the German agents. They analyzed the information and put it to use.

'Living on Another Planet'

A number of senior US military officials were confronted a second time with the content of selected reports. The pictures that the respondents drew of the relevance of the German contributions were largely similar. Colonel Carol Stewart, who was a member of the intelligence team at Centcom, then run by General Tommy Franks, says: "Anyone who claims that these reports did not play a role for combat operations is living on another planet."

The history of the BND mission goes back to the fall of 2002. At the agency's headquarters just outside of Munich, the idea developed to remain in Baghdad during the war in order to obtain a perspective independent of that provided by the Americans. According to one memo, the German Foreign Ministry, which was intimately involved early in the process, was "initially skeptical" about the project. But in mid-December 2002, then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer gave his consent.

On Feb. 11, 2003, two agents using the cover names Reiner Mahner and Volker Heinster traveled across the desert from the Jordanian capital Amman to Baghdad. First though the agency negotiated a secret deal with the Americans. Under the arrangement, selected reports from the Iraqi capital would also be sent to the Americans. In return, the Germans were permitted to send one of their intelligence agents to Centcom in Qatar, the US war operations headquarters. The BND sent Bernd P., code name "Gardist."

The operation quickly gained in importance, according to former BND division head Ludwig Mundt, from whose unit the agents were sent. Mundt is a veteran of the intelligence community and has seen many governments come and go. But he cannot recall a time when an administration in Berlin was this interested in a secret services operation.

Photographs, GPS Data and 130 Reports

On Feb. 27, an incident occurred that demonstrates that the BND's role in Baghdad could not have been as marginal as it claims today. On that day, Johannes H., the BND agent (or "resident") in Baghdad at the time, sent an extremely important message to his counterparts with the Iraqi intelligence service. The core of the message consisted of only one sentence, but it was practically an ultimatum: "The United States and Great Britain consider Iraq's refusal to destroy the Samud II missiles to be a casus belli."

When the Iraqis hesitated, the BND agent told them that the Latin term means "cause for war." Suddenly they understood the message. "Both men seemed very concerned," the station chief noted in a memo for BND headquarters. The Iraqis had suggested that their boss was likely to "take the message directly to IRQ President Saddam Hussein."

The delivery of this explosive news was one of the resident's last official actions. After that, the new special team took over the BND's Baghdad operations. The two new agents were trained soldiers. Mahner was a lieutenant colonel and had served in the German Air Force, and Heinster was a paratrooper. The BND duo began making reconnaissance trips. Using a secure satellite line, they transmitted about 130 reports, including photographs and GPS data, to BND headquarters. They reported sandbag positions and machine gun nests and, after reporting the positions of Iraqi troops near their own location, they requested that "Special Forces be used to fight these troops; no rockets, and definitely no artillery."

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