Ausgabe 18/2008

BND Scandal How German Spies Eavesdropped on an Afghan Ministry

The head of Germany's foreign intelligence service, Ernst Uhrlau, is under pressure over a surveillance operation which targeted a whole ministry in the Afghan government. The scandal raises serious questions about the BND's ability to police itself.


It was an extravagant promise, one delivered in a state of contriteness. Ernst Uhrlau, the president of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), said in a 2006 interview: "When it comes to the private sphere of a journalist, then I have to draw the line." The agency, he said, had "gone too far" and, in the future, "absolute respect for the private sphere" would be its guiding principle. Transparency, Uhrlau said, is important to "ensure that we do not convey the impression that journalists are under surveillance."

Uhrlau's comments were in response to a scandal where journalists had been illegally observed and spied on by informers. The spy chief clearly believed that it was the right time for the kind of promise he made.

And yet it was not a promise he kept -- that much is clear. On June 6, 2006, eight days before Uhrlau uttered his trite assurances, a foolhardy operation began in which a journalist was placed under surveillance once again. This time it was SPIEGEL reporter Susanne Koelbl. The BND, by intercepting and reading her e-mail correspondence with Afghan Commerce Minister Amin Farhang, has triggered a new scandal -- one with the potential to inflict serious political damage, both domestically and abroad.

The electronic assault, using computer software known as a Trojan horse, was directed against a country with which Germany has both friendly and sensitive relations. There are currently 3,400 German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The Germans constantly strive to convince the local population that they -- despite the weapons they carry -- are their friends, and that they are there to secure a fragile peace so that reconstruction can succeed. What can they say when confronted with the assertion that friends don't launch attacks against their allies?

The monitoring operation comes in the midst of a public debate in Germany over how far the state should be allowed to go when it comes to monitoring its citizens. Using tools like online monitoring and video surveillance, the state is trying to glean as much information about its citizens, in order to supposedly protect those same citizens against terrorist attack.

But at the same time, the question arises as to whether the government is not taking things too far, violating citizens' rights to privacy and protection against an official thirst for knowledge. A case like this raises doubts over whether a government agency can responsibly handle the technological tools of our age. A great deal of trust has been destroyed, both in Afghanistan and Germany.

No Plans to Resign

The principal responsibility lies with Ernst Uhrlau, 61, and yet he has no immediate plans to resign. Last Friday, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel revealed that her confidence in Uhrlau has been "damaged" but not "destroyed." The spokesman made it clear that Merkel expects a commitment from Uhrlau to improve his agency's performance, and that he will indeed have to go if he fails to live up to this new promise.

Many observers are asking if a BND president who has come under such serious criticism is himself even capable of cleaning up the agency -- an agency where things have gone haywire, where no one considers it necessary to notify its director about a serious spying attack, and where agents prefer to act on the sly and have no qualms about writing anonymous whistle-blowing letters? "I have serious concerns that this sort of thing could damage our security situation and impair the BND's essential work in the future," says Fritz Rudolf Körper, an expert on security issues for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

It doesn't take much far-sightedness to recognize that Germany's foreign intelligence agency will be paying more attention to its own problems in the coming months rather than focusing on challenges on the international stage. This is not good news for the government in Berlin, faced, as it is, with one international crisis after the next, including the cases of two German kidnapping victims who are still being held in Afghanistan and Iraq. Berlin cannot rely on the BND, as the new scandal illustrates.

It all began in a small unit in the BND's Division 2. The department is responsible for "technical procurement" -- in other words, obtaining information with technical means, which mainly involves the wiretapping of telecommunications, called "signals intelligence" in industry jargon. In 2006, Division 2 consisted of 13 specialist departments and a management team (Department 20A), employing about 1,000 people. The departments are known by their German acronyms, like MOFA (mobile and operational telecommunications intelligence gathering), FAKT (cable telecommunications intelligence gathering) and OPUS (operational support and wiretapping technology).

In early June 2006, the OPUS team in department 26E launched an intelligence attack against Afghanistan. The details could have been taken from a Hollywood thriller, and the scope of the operation was far greater than has been revealed to date. According to the BND's secret allocation of responsibilities, OPUS is in charge of "technical and operational attacks on IT systems," a more or less accurate description of its agents' work.

They secretly planted a so-called Trojan horse spying software in the computer network of Afghanistan's Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The software is designed to install itself on a third-party computer and quietly help send the contents of its hard drives to Germany. Perhaps it will never be fully clear why the BND chose this particular ministry and whether other government agencies in Kabul were also affected -- most of the files relating to the case have apparently been destroyed. The Chancellery, which is responsible for supervising the BND's activities, has now ordered a special investigation.

The Trojan horse enabled the agents at OPUS to monitor the ministry's activities, providing the Germans with a treasure trove of confidential data, internal documents and various government e-mail addresses and the corresponding passwords. Among that information was the log-in details for the personal e-mail account of 68-year-old Commerce Minister Amin Farhang.


© DER SPIEGEL 18/2008
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