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Germany intelligence agency criticized for spying on lawmakers

Already under a cloud for failing to stop a neo-Nazi group blamed for 10 deaths, Germany's chief spy agency is criticized for surveillance of leftist lawmakers.

February 01, 2012|By Aaron Wiener, Los Angeles Times
  • Heinz Fromm, left, head of the Federal Office for Constitutional Protection, with Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, center, and Joerg Ziercke, president of Germany's Federal Criminal Office, at the inauguration of a new anti-right-wing terrorism center in December.
Heinz Fromm, left, head of the Federal Office for Constitutional Protection,… (Carsten Koall / Getty Images )

Reporting from Berlin — Twenty years ago, a reunified Germany opened the archives of the East German secret police, the dreaded Stasi, to the public. Thousands of Germans were horrified to learn that their friends and neighbors had been spying on them for the repressive East German government.

Now, Germans are once again dismayed by their country's intelligence service.

First, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution came under fire after the revelation that a group of neo-Nazis had allegedly committed at least 10 killings while eluding authorities with apparent ease. The agency lost track of the group despite monitoring it as far back as the 1990s and having a coterie of paid informants.

Then, the newsweekly Der Spiegel reported last month that 27 members of Parliament, all with a left-wing party, have been under observation by the intelligence service.

Critics contend that the government has badly allocated resources, monitoring harmless left-wing politicians while allowing violent right-wing criminals to run rampant.

"They've been looking in the wrong direction, and maybe for political reasons," said Michael Minkenberg, a political scientist at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) whose work focuses on the radical right. "It raises a very big question mark about the work they do. If they are really concentrating on preventing a danger to democracy in Germany, they are failing on a grand scale."

The uproar surrounding the neo-Nazi group, which called itself the National Socialist Underground, has crescendoed since the government finally connected it in November to the slayings of nine immigrants and a policewoman from 2000 to '06. The three members of the group believed to have committed the killings weren't tracked down until the bodies of two of them, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, were found in a burning trailer, and the third, Beate Zschaepe, turned herself in to police.

Since then, media investigations have pieced together a story of consistent failure on the part of the federal and state intelligence services to cooperate and act on extensive evidence of the trio's activities.

Police in the eastern state of Thuringia started tracking the three in the 1990s amid allegations of hate speech and bomb threats. In a January 1998 raid by state police, the three escaped.

They then managed to remain on the lam for nearly 14 years, despite many clues to their whereabouts and their continued involvement with the far-right element in Thuringia.

Der Spiegel reported over the weekend that police in Saxony state even happened upon the trio's hide-out in January 2007, when they had already allegedly killed nine people. Zschaepe, who answered the door, gave the police multiple aliases and contradictory information and refused to let them in. The police did not investigate further, although Zschaepe was already wanted by the authorities, who had her mug shot.

All the while, the national and state intelligence services had many paid informants in right-wing circles, including in Thuringia, at least one of whom was in direct contact with the National Socialist Underground.

At least one official acknowledged communication lapses.

"The federal intelligence agency didn't know what the 16 state agencies knew," said an official at the federal intelligence agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There must be better communication among the various intelligence agencies and between the police and the intelligence agencies."

Meanwhile, the federal intelligence service has drawn sharp criticism for its observation of federal lawmakers from the Left Party.

The far-left party, considered by some to be outside the political mainstream, enjoys strong support in the former East Germany and won nearly 12% of the vote in the most recent nationwide election, in 2009.

The Interior Ministry defended its monitoring of the Left Party members last week, arguing that the party advocates "a change to the present form of the state and society." Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich later agreed to order a review of the list, but said he couldn't predict whether it would lead to a higher or lower number of lawmakers under observation.

During the Cold War, Minkenberg said, the intelligence service was mainly concerned with preventing communist infiltration in West Germany. Now, he said, the threats have changed but the agency's mind-set has not.

"When they look at the far right, they think that these are a group of lunatics," he said. "So there is a tendency to say that right-wing activities are not as dangerous as left-wing because they have less of a plan."

The intelligence service official disagreed, saying that fighting right-wing extremism remains a "major priority" for the agency, second only to combating international terrorism.

The official said the federal intelligence service would respond to its failure to detect the activities of the National Socialist Underground, and thus prevent the killings the group allegedly carried out, by making "structural, communication and procedural" changes.

But Minkenberg said he's skeptical, saying, "I don't think it will prevent anything."

Wiener is a special correspondent.

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