Amid calls for clarification, the German government Monday ordered its Federal Intelligence Service to stop spying on journalists following allegations that it tailed and recruited reporters for years.
The Federal Intelligence Service is said to have snooped on journalists for years
Government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said Berlin had taken action after the damaging revelations that the Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, had kept tabs on journalists and even paid reporters to spy on their colleagues to learn the source of leaks.
"The chancellery ordered the BND today not to undertake operative measures against journalists for its own protection," Wilhelm told a regular government news conference. He said the new measure also meant that "journalists may not be used as sources" and indicated that high-ranking officials at the BND could lose their jobs over the affair. "The government regrets the incidents," Wilhelm added.
Damning parliamentary report
Chancellor Merkel attended the BND's 50th anniversary last week
The move comes in the wake of the publication of a confidential parliamentary report that says the BND had spied on far more journalists working for German publications than was previously known and had recruited reporters to spy on their colleagues in order to get to the source of damaging articles. The BND's activities reportedly dated from the early 1980s until as recently as last year.
Wilhelm said the BND had been told to answer questions this week posed by the parliamentary oversight committee. "Then we will confront the issue of what conclusions to draw in terms of personnel," he said.
The new order only covers the BND's protection of its own work -- the sole area in which the agency is allowed by law to conduct operations on German soil. The BND may, however, use journalists as contacts in its foreign operations, Wilhelm said.
He said he could not answer questions about whether the new rules apply to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution -- the domestic intelligence agency, or the Military Counter-Intelligence Service.
BND allegedly spied on journalists
Journalists from several German publications are believed to have been targeted by the BND
The BND had also apparently placed several journalists from various German publications under surveillance for some years in order to find out the source of leaks from the BND to the press.
Former BND chief Volker Foertsch has also admitted that journalists had sometimes been used as informers.
"The aim of the contacts was to prevent publication of prejudicial articles and find out where the journalists were getting their information from inside the BND," he was quoted by another newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung, as saying.
However, former BND president Hansjörg Geiger has denied that he allowed any spying of journalists during his term between 1996 and 1998. "During my term, I explicitly saw to it that the BND was not allowed to use any journalist as a source," Geiger said in a newspaper interview.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's intelligence advisor, Bernd Schmidbauer, has accused Geiger of ordering in 1996 that a journalist be deployed to "clear up leaks from the BND." He insisted that the chancellery was not informed.
The murky affair is a political bombshell in a country that has been particularly sensitive in the post-war period to any abuses of power at the security services or violations of press freedom. It has sparked hot debate with politicians across party lines calling for a full investigation.
"Even intelligence services have to act within their capacity, the limits have evidently been crossed in this affair," said Wolfgang Bosbach, deputy head of the conservatives. Bosbach added that he expected "personnel consequences" at the BND because even superiors seemed to have known about the incidents.
"This isn't just a trifling matter but rather an extraordinarily grave issue," said Ralf Stegner of the Social Democratic Party. "We will have to get to the bottom of it."
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former federal justice minister and member of the opposition free-market liberal FDP likened the affair to the methods of the Stasi, the secret police of former Communist East Germany and warned that it could in particular lead to a deep disenchantment in the country's east.