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.

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.