In Brussels this week, EU leaders said they wanted to increase security cooperation in the war on terror. Germany's BND, with its many contacts in the Arab world, is playing an increasingly important role.
BND has its headquarters near Munich
National intelligence services across Europe are undergoing a kind of macabre boom as a result of the terrorist attacks in Madrid. Politicians who speak of the increasing threat through international terrorists, now substantiate their theories almost without exception with the disturbing insights of intelligence data.
The fact that German President Johannes Rau broke off his trip in Africa last week and returned to Germany due to a terrorist threat underscores how seriously the information provided by intelligence agencies is being taken. Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND) said it had "concrete evidence" that an attack was being planned against the president in Djibouti, where German Navy sailors are participating in the war against terror.
The agency didn't reveal any further details because secretiveness is the part and parcel of intelligence agencies. But intelligence agencies haven't been without their problems in recent years. The failure of CIA and its European counterparts to foresee the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and erroneous information about the existence of weapons of massive destruction provided by the CIA and its British counterpart, the MI6, have seriously damaged the credibility of intelligence agencies.
Germany's foreign intelligence service, too, has had a historically mixed reputation. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once notoriously dismissed the BND as an "band of dilettantes." During the 1970s, the chancellor complained that the BND only reported what he had already read in the newspaper.
"BND had a bad reputation," Erich Schmidt-Eenboom told DW-WORLD. As the author of several books about the BND, Schmidt-Eenboom maintains contacts with many current and former German intelligence workers. "During the Cold War, the BND had been strongly infiltrated by agents from the East," he said.
Overhauling its image
But in recent years, with the Warsaw Pact a thing of the past, the BND has steadily improved its image, Schmidt-Eenboom said.
The new enemy the Western world is confronting is terrorism. When it comes to Islamic terror, the BND has a savoir faire that sometimes even makes the agents of the CIA or Britain's MI6 envious. In recent decades, the BND has dramatically expanded its connections with the Near and Middle East. "The government was motivated by its economic interests in the region," Schmidt-Eenboom explained. These "good values" recently brought huge success to BND after it negotiated the exchange of a hostage and prisoners between the Lebanese Hizballah group and Israel, which took place in Germany.
Nonetheless, some of the BND's past activities have left a bitter aftertaste. During the 1980s, for example, German secret service agents trained Saddam Hussein's intelligence agents, according to Schmidrt-Eenboom. Franz Josef-Strauss, who was them premier of the state of Bavaria, pushed at the time to train Iraqi police in the German cities of Augsburg and Rosenheim. The action was coordinated by the Bavarian Interior Ministry, which was led at the time by the state's current premier and ex-chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union.
Despite such historical hiccups, the BND doesn't have the reputation of being as scrupulous as the CIA, the MI6 or even Israel's Mossad. The improved image BND's 6,000 employees enjoy is traced back by many observers to the work of the agency's current president, August Hanning. His fans describe the 58-year-old as hardworking, reliable, level-headed and down to earth. When he took over the BND in 1998, Hanning pledge to make the institution more open -- at least as much as is possible for a secret service agency.
The BND's "Top Secret" cookbook
Before he took over BND, the only marker identifying the agency's headquarters in Pullach, Bavaria, was a sign reading: "Agency Dwelling." In the past, it would have been unthinkable, but under Hanning the BND holds press conferences, conducts symposiums and manages an Internet site with information about the federal intelligence agency's history and mission. By the end of this year, the BND is also planning to open its own boutique in Berlin, where secret service fans can purchase underwear and other keepsakes emblazoned with slogans like "classified."
But the BND's biggest change is likely to come after 2008, when the agency plans to move its headquarters to Berlin, increasing the chances that it can have more influence on policy.
Increasing European exchange
Though the image of the BND has become a little softer and fuzzier as of late, that doesn't mean it has become any more transparent. Nine members of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, sit on the committee responsible for oversight of the secret service. In certain cases, agency information can also be withheld from them.
There also the persistent question of intra-agency competition in Germany, where the decentralized, federalist structure has led to the creation of 37 different security-related authorities on the federal and state level. They include the BND, the Federal Border Guard, the state offices of criminal investigation, the offices for the domestic intelligence agencies (the offices of constitutional protection) and customs agencies -- all of which coexist and sometimes compete with one another.
But the situation appears to be getting less complex. "The competition between organizations has diminished," said Schmidt-Eenboom, who also welcomed the increased exchange between security bodies on the European level.
Still, Schmidt-Eenboom said the EU plan had its limits and he described the announcement that Brussels would appoint an anti-terrorism czar as "hot air." From day one, the office will be limited by national sensitivities -- because many EU countries will be reluctant to share agents and intelligence if they believe it is sensitive to their national strategic interests.