'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.
Von John Goetz, Marcel Rosenbach und Holger Stark

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."

Germany's Role in US Combat Decisions

To this day, the two men deny knowing that their reports were forwarded to the Americans. But such a request seems to counter those denials. After all, decisions on the deployment of Special Forces and artillery were entirely up to Centcom, the American headquarters.

On the ninth day of the war, the two BND agents reported: "Air force officers' club severely hit, although soldiers are preparing for defense in the ruins." The report was sent to Qatar on the same day. A short time later, the Americans attacked the same target a second time. On April 1, the pair, known as a Special Deployment Team or SET, reported that the air force officers' club was "hit again and completely destroyed." This report was also forwarded to Centcom on the same day, at 11:28 a.m.

Baghdad on the evening of March 21, 2003. Germany has long denied having played any kind of a military role.

Baghdad on the evening of March 21, 2003. Germany has long denied having played any kind of a military role.

Foto: DPA

Were these reports relevant to the Americans' conduct of the war? Horst Henning Sch., an agent stationed at BND headquarters at the time, was responsible for deciding what information could be passed on to "Gardist" and to the Americans. He told the Bundestag investigative committee that almost no information was supplied to the Americans, and that the information that was provided was worthless. Sch. chose a bold simile in his testimony before the committee: "Gardist," in a manner of speaking, "played a strong game of poker with few aces in his hand."

The Americans interviewed by SPIEGEL could tell the Bundestag committee a different story about the relevance of the BND reports. In their view, these reports even played a role in critical combat decisions, such as that relating to commencement of the ground offensive.

'Reliable Agents on the Ground'

Marks, the general in military intelligence, recalls receiving hundreds of reports from other agencies every day in his top-secret e-mail box. He classified the information coming from the Germans as coming from "eyes on the ground." It was exactly the kind of information that Marks felt he didn't have enough of. In addition to the search for the alleged weapons of mass destruction, the general was interested in the situation surrounding Iraq's oilfields and the defense of Baghdad.

The oil was of particular concern to the US military in Kuwait and Qatar. They were determined to prevent Saddam Hussein from destroying his oil facilities, as he had done 12 years earlier in the first Gulf War. Any information about possible sabotage was given priority within Marks' 400-man operation.

The American intelligence group was all the more agitated when, on Feb. 25, it received information indicating that Iraqi forces had begun burning "massive amounts of crude oil" at the al-Dora refinery in Baghdad. "The IRQ side apparently hopes that this will obstruct US satellite reconnaissance," the German agents wrote. On March 5, they reported: "There is credible information to suggest that the oil pumping station near Kirkuk was prepared for blasting." The explosive reports came from Mahner and Heinster, the two BND agents.

Eleven days after their arrival, they got into their Jeep, together with the BND resident, and drove on Iraq's Highway No. 8 to Hilla, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of Baghdad. As they drove south, the Germans saw Soviet-made T-72 combat tanks dug into position along the highway, various sandbag positions and machine-gun nests on the roofs of government buildings. The agents took a number of photographs.

Invasion, Fast-Forward

In the report they prepared after the trip, they also described plumes of smoke coming from the airport and the al-Dora refinery. A short time later the information, photographs included, became available to the Americans in Kuwait.

Several members of General Marks' staff remember the reactions triggered by the German reports.

"The March 5 report was especially important to us," says a senior member of the oil reconnaissance team, who works for a security agency today and therefore wishes to remain anonymous. The reports and the increased monitoring of the facilities that ensued, he says, resulted in substantial changes to and acceleration of the war plans.

Air reconnaissance of the facilities was immediately stepped up, says the former oil reconnaissance team member. On March 19, when a drone provided the first images of flames coming from burning oilfields, thus reinforcing the Germans' warnings, Marks hurried to the commander of the ground troops, David McKiernan. "What counts now," he said, with some urgency, "is the element of surprise. Let's advance on the ground first and secure the oil."

Centcom Commander Franks agreed. A few hours later, he gave 140,000 coalition troops their marching orders. As a result, the ground war began earlier than planned, and Franks' decision went down in US military history as "G before A," or "ground before air." By March 21, the US Marines reported that their mission had already been accomplished. They had crossed the border without encountering significant resistance, and had taken control of Iraq's central oil fields. "The Germans and their reliable information played a significant part in the war beginning earlier than planned," says Marks.

According to several American military officials, the Baghdad BND agents' reports also played a role in a second strategic war issue, centering on the Baghdad international airport, known as Saddam Airport at the time. In this case, the German information again apparently contributed to the US Army's decision to jettison its original plan.

'Saved American Lives'

Because of its strategic importance, US military leaders in Kuwait had had a 10-meter (33-foot) model of the airport made. Plastic soldiers represented the Iraqi troops, and a color-coding system was used to identify high-risk areas. Centcom had planned a surprise attack. Using the model, the commanders had developed a plan in which Special Forces and parts of the 82nd Airborne Division would take the airport with paratroopers from the air.

Mahner and Heinster were also interested in the airport. On Feb. 16, they and the BND resident completed one of their first reconnaissance trips to the area. As they wrote in their report, they discovered Roland anti-aircraft systems on a "manmade hill," which they photographed from their car.

A few days later, during a second reconnaissance rip, they noticed freshly dug oil ditches. The Iraqi forces had begun to "lay smoke screens near Saddam Airport," they reported on Feb. 24. That report went to "Gardist" at US operational headquarters in Qatar the next day. Marks remembers both the photo taken by the Germans and the fact that the information about the air defense systems was incorporated into the model at Camp Doha.

In the decisive pre-war phase, the commander of ground troops brought together the air-landing specialists and reconnaissance experts in front of the model to work through all options. After two hours of simulation, the general decided to call off the operation, because of the high risk involved. To this day, Marks is convinced that the information about the air defense positions and quickly ignitable oil ditches made it clear to the commander that going ahead with the original plan could have led to the deaths of thousands of paratroopers.

The German team, Marks says today, "saved American lives" through their efforts -- the lives of soldiers, he means, not the civilians that Steinmeier and the BND still talk about today.

The BND's dangerous Baghdad operation was kept secret for a long time. It was only during a visit by US members of Congress, including Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, to American headquarters in Baghdad in early 2004 that the matter was briefly discussed. A Republican had complained that Berlin had let the coalition down during the war.

Colonel Carol Stewart recalls that she pointed out that the Germans had contributed to "Operation Iraqi Freedom" with their reports. "Liebermann was surprised," says Stewart, who says she had a similar reaction during the war. "I knew that the Germans were against the war, and that's why I was surprised that they played such a positive and helpful role for us during the war." Stewart has nothing but praise for the BND agents, noting that they were courageous and "did excellent work." Retired General Marks says, referring to the BND agents, "those guys are heroes."

An Incorrect Denial

The same view was held in BND headquarters and in Berlin, at least as long as the mission was kept under wraps. Then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Chancellery Chief of Staff Steinmeier, who met Mahner and Heinster on various occasions, congratulated and thanked them for their work. But when the first reports about the BND cell became public in January 2006, a quarrel quickly erupted in Berlin.

August Hanning, president of the BND during the Iraq war and now a deputy in the Interior Ministry, argued for an assertive position: "The Iraq war, after all, did not lead to the suspension of our alliance with the Americans. We continue to work closely together."

In January 2006, Hanning argued internally for a self-assured approach, refusing to apologize for or even downplay the case. "We were interested in information about the progress of the war," he told close associates, "and we wanted to have our own information in the field. That's why we needed the two agents, and of course we exchanged information with the Americans." Hanning was aware that the cooperation with US intelligence was much closer than the anti-war rhetoric of the Schröder government indicated. "The reality and the public's impression," he said, "are not the same."

Steinmeier and Ernst Uhrlau have taken a significantly different approach to the subject. Steinmeier has become foreign minister and thus entered the top echelon of German politics. Uhrlau has since replaced Hanning as head of the BND.

Incorrect Denial

In mid-January 2006, when the first media inquiries about the BND's Baghdad operation started coming in, Uhrlau consulted with his staff and then with the Chancellery. For the first time, the charge was raised that the BND may have supplied military information to the Americans. The agents, it was claimed, had provided the US military with a supposed location for Saddam Hussein, which allegedly led to the bombing of a restaurant, killing 12 civilians. Based on everything we know today, this charge is false.

Uhrlau was in favor of a forceful denial and had his staff prepare a press release that went beyond the specific restaurant-related claims. The statement said that the parties to the conflict "were not provided with any target documentation or coordinates for bombing targets."

The approach taken by the BND president was controversial within his own agency, where some senior staff members advised restraint. "We will never be able to withdraw from a statement like this," they argued. The new agency president, they said, had no idea what surprises the BND files had in store for him. But Uhrlau ignored their warnings and insisted that the BND issue a denial, in writing.

Still, before he issued the denial, Uhrlau asked Merkel's Chief of Staff Thomas de Maizière and the Chancellery intelligence coordinator Klaus Dieter Fritsche. But they were unfamiliar with the files, and de Maizière and Fritsche had to take Uhrlau at his word. They voiced there concerns during a number of meetings. But eventually the Chancellery officials told Uhrlau that, if it was correct, he could go ahead and issue the official denial.

The denial was issued, but it was not correct.

Uhrlau's public relations staff provided the German news agency DPA with the following quote: "The goal was to save human lives." The BND agents, Uhrlau's staff said, provided information about buildings that were not to be bombed under any circumstances. "Civilian facilities, daycare centers, embassies and the like," the BND spokesmen said, "the goal being to protect human life. Military information was not provided. This did not happen. We deny it."

So there was no information of a military nature.

Medals for the Germans

Steinmeier added his own twist to the message. When SPIEGEL reported, on Jan. 14, 2006, that military information about oil ditches had been sent to the US military, the news agencies reported: "Steinmeier denies SPIEGEL report about BND legwork." He said he would "resist attempts to rewrite history." Internally, Steinmeier complained about "a campaign," and confidants say they recall that the minister feared serious political consequences, up to and including the possibility of his resignation.

Later, Steinmeier issued the following prescribed terminology, which remains valid today. He said that the government's political instructions to the BND "precluded active support of combat operations" in Iraq. But Steinmeier's problem was that the supposed instructions were not issued in writing, an unusual approach for a bureaucracy known for its otherwise thorough documentation of even the most minor details.

When Hanning testified before the investigation commission, he referred to the situation as a "balancing act" and conceded that he had relied on the relevant department manager, but argued that he had had no reason to question what he had been told. Does this mean that, in the end, it was a minor department manager at the BND who ultimately thwarted the Schröder government's anti-war course? Were Hanning, Uhrlau and Steinmeier guilty of nothing more than a failure to properly supervise lower-ranking staff?

Or is the official account by those in power at the time just as questionable as the attempts to downplay the US Army's awarding of its Meritorious Service Medal to the Baghdad agents and "Gardist" by arguing that this medal is awarded to "non-combatants?"

"Total nonsense," says James Marks, who manages a large Pentagon contracting firm today. "This medal is one of the highest honors we award to foreign nationals."

He knows what he is talking about. Marks himself has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal -- four times.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Mehr lesen über
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.