a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Lawmakers investigate journalist surveillance

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 18th, 2006

In Germany, that is.

German lawmakers are looking into allegations that the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) intelligence agency put German journalists under surveillance to find out who was leaking information to them. News of the scandal broke last week, when the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported on the findings of Gerhard Schäfer, a special investigator commissioned by — imagine this — a parliamentary oversight committee:

As Süddeutsche Zeitung [SZ] has learned, Schäfer’s investigations show that the BND did not only shadow individual journalists. The agency also used journalists against targeted colleagues to learn about the topics they were working on. […]

Judge Schäfer described the practices, according to SZ’s information, as “disproportionate” and “clearly illegal” and spoke of flagrant “interference in the freedom of the press.”

The tactics are all too similar to those of the notorious East German Stasi, which is estimated to have had around one in every fifty East Germans on its payroll, spying on the rest.

So far, so bad. But while Siegfried Kauder, the chairman of the oversight committee (PKG: Parlementarischer Kontroll Gremium) was none too pleased that word of the secret report reached the press, the decision was apparently made to make the best of the situation and release the full report next week.

Adding to the “Alice in Wonderland” quality of the story for Americans now sadly accustomed to so much less, the newsweekly SPIEGEL reports that the “BND informant affair” will be on the agenda of the German parliament’s Interior Committee by the end of May. Moreover, a BND spokesman said no harm would be done to BND by releasing the Schaefer report — contradicting Kauder, who had argued against the release. And BND chief Ernst Uhrlau told German TV network ARD: “We conclude that the methods used in the past don’t belong to the core business of the BND, and also don’t belong to the legal tools of the agency, as we see them.”

SPIEGEL’s Matthias Gebauer warns that the report hasn’t made it out the government’s door yet, and Die Zeit’s Martin Klingst points out that the story has revealed that too many reporters are too willing to make unethical deals with the intelligence agencies they cover.

But viewed from this side of the Atlantic, this seems on the whole to be a democratic success story: a secretive agency is caught out in questionable activity; an actual parliamentary investigation results — and one that features vigorous efforts by opposition party members, who are not iced out of meaningful oversight roles; an independent, active press helps the public learn of the broad outlines of the resulting report; intelligence officials appear to agree that keeping that report secret serves no good purpose; followup legislative oversight hearings are scheduled.

Would that my own country’s institutions could do as well.

UPDATE, 5/18: The plot thickens — SPIEGEL’s Matthias Gebauer reports that at least one of the alleged targets of BND surveillance says he’ll go to court to stop the PKG’s release of the Schaefer report. In addition to privacy concerns, some worry that they will be miscast as stool pigeons for their own conversations with the BND. While Schaefer is meeting with all the targets, it’s not clear whether they will have a binding say in what is and is not released.
UPDATE, 5/21: SPIEGEL’s”mgb” (Gebauer?) reports that the target involved, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, now supports the full release of the report after seeing it — and disputes an SZ claim that he was an informant himself.
UPDATE, 5/25: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports a Berlin court has ruled that personal information in the report about FOCUS editor Josef Hufelschulte — one of the reporters being surveilled, not one of the informants — can’t be published.

4 Responses to “Lawmakers investigate journalist surveillance”

  1. Nell Says:

    Not strictly on-topic, but I wanted to give you the chance to see how you inspired another Abu Ghraib-garbed protester (me) at our demo protesting Rumsfeld yesterday.
    It might still be at the main page of – #6 in the slideshow of ‘portraits of protesters’.
    Story here.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Congratulations on a good protest, a good story, and of course an excellent costume — I saw it! Now I’ll recognize you anywhere 🙂
    PS: looks like this link to the photo gallery works, who’d’a’ thunk it.

  3. Brett Says:

    The best thing about the BND story is that it broke just as the 50th anniversary of the agency was being celebrated. Good work, folks.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Yeah, they’re having kind of a tough year altogether, aren’t they.

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