The Reporter Who Came In From the Cold

In Germany it can be difficult to tell a journalist from a spy, as the story of one German reporter shows all too well.

Weilheim is a cozy Bavarian village, where geraniums drip from window boxes and onion-domed churches and Alpine chateaus line the cobbled streets. Journalist Erich Schmidt-Eenboom lives in this sleepy town, and he was there sifting through files on a warm day in May 2005 when his doorbell rang. On his stoop stood a graying man with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans. The man said he was a retired agent from Germany’s spy agency, the BND, and he had pressing news.

Schmidt-Eenboom was used to people with secrets knocking on his door. He had spent more than a decade reporting on intelligence matters, and had written a tell-all book on the BND called Sleuthhound Without a Nose. By now, he was the go-to man for people with dirt on the agency.

So without a second thought, he climbed into the stranger’s car and they drove to the banks of the Ammer River. They stood for a moment soaking up the scenery — the thick meadows, the craggy Alps hovering in the distance. Then the stranger dropped his bomb. “My job was to spy on you,” Schmidt-Eenboom recalls him saying.

A chill crept over the author as he listened to the man describe the lengths the BND had gone to during the three years it spied on him in the 1990s. At times, a shadow entourage of up to fifteen agents had tailed him and his secretary. Family outings, trips to the sauna — nothing was off-limits. The agency had even parked a white VW Golf with a camera in its visor outside his office in downtown Weilheim, and installed cameras in the attic of an old building across the street. These were used to snap photos of his visitors’ license plates. The aim of the program, called Operation Emporio, was to find out who at the BND was giving the author information.

Schmidt-Eenboom didn’t want to believe what he was hearing. But the stranger knew things only a spy could: The hodgepodge of papers and clothes the author used to keep in his trunk; the way his secretary would buy pork cutlets at the market across the street, and then wolf them down as she walked back to the office. “There was no doubt he was telling the truth,” Schmidt-Eenboom says. “The only question was whether they had gotten my sources. And if they had, I might as well retire.”

So he set out on a quest to discover what exactly the agency knew. In the process he uncovered a scandal that, though it has been little covered in the U.S., would rattle the Bundestag, blacken the BND, and deal the German media its biggest blow in nearly half a century.

Schmidt-Eenboom is a lanky man with a thick patch of whiskers and the quiet, determined air of someone on a mission. For more than a decade, that mission has been shedding light on the darkest secrets of the BND. He has courted leaks among the agency’s upper ranks and exposed hundreds of clandestine operations. In the process he created what one agency section chief called in an internal memo “a serious impairment to our future work.”

After the stranger’s visit in May 2005, Schmidt-Eenboom began scheming to retrieve his own BND dossier. He tracked down two agents who had spied on him and staked out their homes and private retreats, and they eventually spilled what they knew. Armed with this information he confronted the BND in July of that year, demanding it turn over his file. By September his request still hadn’t been answered, so he began threatening to talk to the press. Schmidt-Eenboom says that’s when he received an anonymous call vowing to “slaughter” him if he went public.

But he kept going. Schmidt-Eenboom knew the BND’s annual symposium was coming up on November 10. Shortly before, he began feeding information to Andreas Förster, a reporter for Berliner Zeitung. On November 7 the paper ran a story headlined “Taken In the Crosshairs,” which detailed how BND agents “hung at the heels” of their “favorite enemy,” Erich Schmidt-Eenboom.

Three days later, intelligence experts from Libya, Russia, and Japan poured into Berlin’s Hotel Estrel for the BND shindig. The topic du jour was nuclear proliferation, but the reporters who turned out only wanted to know why the BND would spy on journalists. Meanwhile, Schmidt-Eenboom kept feeding his colleagues exclusive scoops. “You have to wage a campaign,” he notes. “One story won’t do it.”

The Parliamentary committee that oversees the BND operations responded to the firestorm by ordering the agency to conduct an investigation. The outcome not only lent weight to Schmidt-Eenboom’s claims, but found that the BND had targeted a reporter from Focus, one of Germany’s top news magazines, as well. The committee then enlisted retired chief federal justice Gerhard Schäfer to dig deeper. Nobody — not even Schmidt-Eenboom — was prepared for the spiral of intrigue that Schäfer would unspool.

As birthdays go, the BND’s fiftieth anniversary bash earlier this year was a somber affair. Hundreds of dark suits packed into an old Prussian arsenal in central Berlin on May 12 to hear a battery of obligatory speeches. Still, BND president Ernst Uhrlau put on a cheery face when he climbed to the podium. He touted a new era of “transparency” at the agency and a commitment to working “within the framework of the law.”

And even as Uhrlau was speaking, details of the 179-page Schäfer report, which had been presented at a secret session of Parliament the day before, were leaking out. And they were chilling. Not only was spying on journalists more widespread than anyone had thought, but many of the informants and snoops were themselves reporters. For example:

  • One of the BND’s prime targets, according to the report, was Josef Hufelschulte, who covers intelligence matters for Focus magazine. From 1993 to 1996, three cars loaded with BND agents followed him to work each day. Spies posing as lovers also roamed the quiet hamlet where he lived. On weekends, when he trolled the aisles of a local Turkish market with his wife and son, as many as eight agents hovered around them. These efforts failed to turn up anything about Hufelschulte’s sources, so the BND tried another tack: enlisting a scrappy stringer named Erwin Decker to spy on him. In return, Decker got story leads.

  • Wilhelm Dietl, another prominent reporter, spied regularly for the BND from 1982 to 1998 under the code name “Dali,” according to Schäfer’s report. At the same time he wrote about the agency for leading news magazines, like Focus and Stern. Besides informing on other journalists (Hufelschulte among them) Dietl collected information on other sensitive matters, like the U.S. Army’s operations in Kuwait. All told, he delivered 856 reports and received 653,000 deutsche marks, the pre-euro unit of currency.

  • Schäfer said the BND also kept tabs on Hans Leyendecker, one of Germany’s best-known investigative reporters, and some of his Der Spiegel colleagues. It began doing so after the magazine reported that the agency helped smuggle Russian plutonium to Munich on a passenger plane. Often the BND relied on “Kempinski” (his real name has yet to become public), a Stasi spy turned Focus magazine reporter, for information.

  • Other Focus reporters also fed the BND dirt on their older and more venerable competitor, Der Spiegel, and in return, the agency gave them information on the stories Der Spiegel was planning.

These revelations were a political bombshell. Spies crouching outside journalists’ windows or fishing through their garbage might be expected in the Stasi or SS eras. But these things weren’t supposed to happen in the new, democratic Germany. Within hours of the first news reports, politicians were lining up to proclaim their outrage. It was “disgraceful,” “extraordinarily grave,” a “blatant scandal.” Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly ordered the BND to stop spying on reporters.

The BND tried initially to defend itself. “The program was an effort to find traitors in our ranks, not to influence the activities or reporting of journalists.” an agency spokesman told CJR just after the news broke in May. But justifications soon gave way to apologies and finger pointing. No one seemed to have issued the order to spy on journalists, and Parliament had, of course, known nothing about the program.

But as the din faded, some politicians changed their tune. When asked about the spying at a conference in July, interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble said journalists should get used to having their freedom checked in the name of national security. “Sometimes secrecy of state pulls rank,” he said.

Schäuble’s words aren’t just idle talk. This past September, police raided the offices of Cicero, a political monthly, after it published a story on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with scraps it gleaned from intelligence sources. They also rummaged through the home of the story’s author, Bruno Schirra, seizing fifteen cartons of notes and tapes. Schirra and a Cicero editor are now under investigation for aiding and abetting the betrayal of state secrets. And this is just one of the more than 200 government raids on journalists’ homes and offices since 1990, according to the German journalists association, DJV. The organization also estimates that hundreds of reporters have had their lines tapped or phone records scoured. And these measures have taken a toll on investigative reporting. “Informants think twice before getting in contact with journalists,” explains DJV president Michael Konken.

Yet it’s hard to detect much sympathy among the German public for this abuse of the press. In fact, the BND affair will likely only deepen the public ambivalence to the media’s plight. After all, journalists were party to the intrigue. And this includes Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, the man who exposed the scandal. According to the Schäfer report, he was acting as a BND informant even as its agents were rifling through his trash.

Schmidt-Eenboom’s meetings with the BND agent, identified only as “Bessel” in Schäfer’s report, began in 1997, just months after spies quit tailing him. At first the author simply helped root out corruption and treachery within the agency, just as he aimed to do with his reporting. He handed over a pile of documents belonging to a retired BND turncoat, for example, and invited Bessel to thumb through secret papers from the agency’s former vice president, Dieter Blötz. This triggered a string of internal investigations and a criminal probe.

Schmidt-Eenboom’s relationship with the BND took a more sinister turn in mid-2002, when he began feeding Bessel information on other journalists and his own sources under the code name “März.” It was also around this time that talk of money first arose.

Among the details Schmidt-Eenboom shared with Bessel was the name of a source who had slipped him a secret letter from the BND chief to the Chancellery. He also provided information about stories Der Spiegel and other outlets were planning. And he told Bessel about a circle of former BND agents who supposedly swapped sensitive documents at Munich’s Arabella Hotel, and sometimes sold them to reporters. Schmidt-Eenboom was obviously worried that his other BND sources would discover what he was up to, and at some point changed his codename to “Gladiator,” in case anyone had found out who “März” was.

Bessel later enlisted Schmidt-Eenboom to travel to Hamburg with instructions to offer 10,000 euros for some sensitive papers. This, according to Schäfer, is when Schmidt-Eenboom crossed the line from mere informant to spy. Following the operation, the BND made three “donations” totaling 1,000 euros, or approximately $900, to a foundation that Schmidt-Eenboom ran.

The author’s BND dossier makes much of the fact that he was having money troubles. With this token sum, it seems, the agency hoped to answer the key question: Could he be bought?

Schmidt-Eenboom admits, “It would have been better to send back the money.” But beyond that he denies any wrongdoing. He claims the facts he fed the BND weren’t facts at all, but “disinformation.” “It was a cat-and-mouse game,” he argues. “The goal was to get information without giving any away. I think a lot of my colleagues in other places — France, Great Britain, the United States — are doing the same.”

But some of his German colleagues aren’t so sure. “It’s a tragedy,” says Wolfgang Krach, Süddeutsche Zeitung’s managing editor. “He betrayed sources. He informed on other journalists. And he was supposed to be the hero of this story. He’s the one who revealed that the rest of us were under observation.”

The BND kept mining Schmidt-Eenboom for information until well into 2005. In July of that year Bessel visited the author at his home on the quiet Weilheim cul-de-sac. When he arrived, Schmidt-Eenboom handed him a scrap of paper describing a top-secret operation. Its name: Operation Emporio.

Word of Schmidt-Eenboom’s discovery touched off a panic inside the BND. Then-president August Hanning sent a memo ordering staff to “use any means necessary to track down the source of the leak.” Bessel did his best to comply. He met Schmidt-Eenboom at a Munich café on August 12 and shoved a sheet with twenty-some color passport photos on it across the table. Then he asked the author to finger the culprit. But this time, Gladiator wouldn’t play along.

Mariah Blake, a former assistant editor at CJR, reports regularly on Germany and transatlantic affairs.

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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.