Ausgabe 22/2008

Telecommunications Scandal Did Deutsche Telekom Spy on Journalists and Board Members?

German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom stands accused of having monitored telephone calls of business journalists, board members and shareholders. An anonymous fax may result in a criminal investigation.


Had it not been for the money, there is a good chance that the entire "unsavory story" -- as a senior executive at German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom AG called it last week -- would never have come to light. Most of all, though, it was a fax that revealed the story -- and exposed an absurd concoction of economic spying, power-hungry megalomania, paranoia, and a complete disregard for the freedom of the press.

German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom may be guilty of spying on its own supervisory board and on business journalists.

German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom may be guilty of spying on its own supervisory board and on business journalists.

The fax arrived at the company's headquarters in Bonn about four weeks ago, addressed to the head of Telekom's legal department. And the threatening undertones seemed difficult to ignore, especially given the words that appeared at the end of the three-page document, which SPIEGEL has obtained: "You should not underestimate my aggressive potential and my staying power."

It was, at the very least, a reckoning in two parts: The head of a Berlin management consulting company, from whom the fax came, was calling on Telekom's head lawyer to contact him without delay. The goal, he wrote, was to achieve "a controlled termination of our business relationship protected against indiscretion." At the same time, the letter was the formal end to long-term activities that apparently served one overriding purpose: to spy on German business journalists, members of the supervisory board and senior company executives, including monitoring their telephone communications with one another.

Journalists, Board Members and Shareholders

The company itself, led by then CEO Kai-Uwe Ricke and monitored by a supervisory board headed up by then Deutsche Post CEO Klaus Zumwinkel, is accused of being behind the alleged spying. And the Berlin consulting firm, whose chief executive sent the April 28 fax, was hired to carry it out. The goal of the "Clipper" and "Rheingold" surveillance programs, as well as other "secondary projects," the fax makes clear, was to "analyze several hundred thousand landline and mobile connection data sets of key German journalists reporting on Telekom and their private contacts."

But that wasn't all. The same procedure, according to the memo, was repeated with "several supervisory board members on the employee side" -- "for a total period of one-and-a-half years."

Other spying campaigns had already been "specifically planned and assigned," including "the surveillance of one of your shareholders, a company headquartered in New York." This is likely a reference to Telekom shareholder Blackstone. Moreover, the letter continues, the office of an "important business journalist," had been infiltrated by a mole who had reported "directly to corporate security" at Telekom for several months. The head of the security company leaves no doubt that "the projects, even by intelligence standards, can be described as unusually broad and sophisticated."

All of this, according to written allegations, was ordered "directly by management (in close cooperation with the then chairman of the supervisory board) and paid for directly by the chairman of the board, through the office of the supervisory board." But apparently not all fees were paid and a dispute eventually erupted.

It is still unclear how much of the alleged spying operation is in fact true. Telekom confirmed that it has turned the matter over to the public prosecutor's office. Company representatives, citing the ongoing investigation, have declined to comment on details of the case but said the operation was apparently coordinated with the supervisory board and its chairman. "We take this situation very seriously. We will do everything within our power to support the prosecutor's office in its efforts to conduct a thorough investigation," says current Telekom CEO René Obermann.

A Host of Criminal Charges

Lothar Schröder, Telekom's chief union negotiator and deputy head of the supervisory board, who may have been a target of surveillance himself, is outraged: "If the accusations are confirmed, it would be an unprecedented breach of trust and an unbelievable scandal, and those responsible for it should be brought to justice as quickly as possible." Schröder nevertheless said that he was convinced the current management is interested in a speedy and thorough investigation.

Former Telekom CEO Kai-Uwe Ricke.

Former Telekom CEO Kai-Uwe Ricke.

Obermann reacted immediately when the security department first became aware that something was amiss. The head of security was replaced and the entire department was completely reorganized. In addition to reporting the incident to the chancellery and the Finance Ministry in Berlin, Obermann forwarded the entire case to the office of the public prosecutor in Bonn. The task that office now faces is to determine who may have been guilty of what crimes in the period between 2005 and 2006 -- a period when Obermann's predecessor Ricke was still in charge of the company. Investigators are still examining the extensive Telekom material and have not yet launched an official investigation.

But such an investigation, company officials believe, is only a matter of time. Even if only a fraction of the allegations are true, the company could face a host of criminal charges, ranging from violation of the secrecy of telecommunications to bribery and even extortion.

There were many indications last week that at least some low-level spying must have taken place against several labor representatives and members of the supervisory board, including Wilhelm Wegner, the head of the group works council. There was also mounting evidence that agreements had in fact been made with the Berlin-based company that contacted Telekom in February to demand payment of supposedly unpaid invoices ranging in the six figures. Moreover, there are indications that former CEO Ricke and his Supervisory Board Chairman Zumwinkel were frustrated that reports of confidential board meetings were repeatedly leaked to the press.

Trouble Was Brewing

The Berlin consulting firm was allegedly hired in the spring of 2005 to explore where the leaks could be coming from. The firm was asked to compare the telephone records of members of the supervisory board with those of well-known business journalists who reported on Telekom.

The snooping campaign against the head of the works council happened in a turbulent phase for Telekom. Following the dramatic plunge of Telekom's stock from a high in March 2000, CEO Ron Sommer resigned in July 2002 under pressure from the German government, a major shareholder in the company. Ricke took over the post in November. He reorganized Telekom management and turned his back on his glamorous predecessor's global visions. With his tough cost-cutting measures and the sale of several divisions Ricke, whose father had also run Telekom in the past, returned the company to financially sound footing.

Even analysts and shareholders began to respect the awkward and graying Ricke. But trouble was brewing inside Telekom. Employees were becoming increasingly concerned about job security. In early 2005, Ricke had announced that Telekom would have to cut at least 8,500 jobs a year in the future.


© DER SPIEGEL 22/2008
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