German Spies Caught Reading Journalist′s E-Mails | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.04.2008
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German Spies Caught Reading Journalist's E-Mails

Germany's foreign intelligence service acknowledged, and apologized for, having spied on a German journalist. It's not the first time German agents have been caught keeping tabs on reporters.

E-mail envelope icon on computer e-mail window

Confidentiality compromised: who has the right to read e-mails?

The Federal Intelligence Agency (BND), read e-mail correspondence that Susanne Koelbl, an editor at the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, had exchanged with an Afghani politician between June and November, 2006, according to a report that broke in Spiegel in the edition of the magazine published Monday, April 21.

BND chief Ernst Uhrlau informed Koelbl of its actions on Friday and apologized at the same time. Koelbl has been reporting for years for the magazine from crisis areas in Asia's Hindu Kush mountain region.

Parliament to discuss case

According to the Web site of Koelbl's publisher, Random House, the author has been covering Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and "has access to almost everyone within the government in Kabul, but also to ... Pakistan."

Portrait of Susanne Koelbl taken at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007

Susanne Koelbl is well-connected in the Hindu Kush

The case is expected to be discussed by the parliamentary control committee of the Bundestag on Wednesday, the magazine reported. The committee is responsible for monitoring the BND.

Acting chairman of the parliamentary control committee, Max Stadler, has demanded an explanation.

"The (German) Basic Law applies even to those Germans living abroad, and this was a clear breach of press freedom," he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

The BND has already been involved in "spying affairs" involving journalists in past years, and should have developed a stricter attitude about it, Stadler told the paper.

"The BND has already apologized to Ms. Koelbl," he said. "That shows that even they see the case as problematic."

Similar citations for BND in 2006

Germany saw a scandal involving the BND spying on journalists back in 2006. At the time, a report emerged from the parliamentary committee acknowledging that intelligence agents had illegally spied on journalists to expose their sources.

A 180-page parliamentary report released at the time showed that measures taken by the BND against German reporters in an effort to shut off leaks violated the law.

Pakistan's President Musharraf, left, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai greet each other during a joint peace meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday Aug. 12, 2007.

Koelbl had contacts to high-ranking officials

"Regarding the accusations in the press that the Federal Intelligence Agency ... illegally spied on journalists in order to expose their sources, it is to be ascertained that such observations did take place ... these measures were predominantly illegal," the 2006 report read.

BND agents picked through the journalists' rubbish and traced their research, the report stated. While none of the reporters was bugged, agents used other measures against them to try to uncover their sources, including stealing a box of his papers that one journalist had thrown away and tracing another's research in the federal archive.

As a result, Germany's ranking dropped on a ranking list of press freedom complied by the independent journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

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