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?