Germany's foreign intelligence service, BND, says it delivers information that others don't. Over its 50-year history, it has employed former Nazis and received much bad press, but has often proved it does good work.
The BND even sells t-shirts and caps at its very own shop
It didn't notice preparations to erect the Berlin Wall in 1961. It's been accused of participating in the war in Iraq. It can't decide where its headquarters should be -- in Pullach or Berlin. These are just some of the "misdemeanors" by the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence service, which have led to the agency gaining a bad reputation in Germany. But does the BND, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on April 1, really deserve such a bad rap? Or are the organization's agents right when they say that their successes remain invisible, while their failures receive all the attention?
Wehrmacht Major General Gehlen later headed the BND
Even the birth of the BND 50 years ago provides grounds for critique. Originally designed as an agency to help American secret services, it was first called the Gehlen Organization, named after the former Nazi-era Major General Reinhard Gehlen, who led the agency at the start. The one-time chief of the so-called Department of Foreign Armies in the East during World War II provided the Americans with important information from his archives.
Yet he also recruited many employees for the agency who were once part of the Nazi intelligence network -- Wehrmacht and defense officers. The Gehlen Organization was turned into the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, on April 1, 1956, and became a government department under the control of the federal chancellery. Yet even as late as 1970, between 25 and 30 percent of BND employees were former SS or Gestapo officers. Gehlen led the BND until 1968.
During the Cold War, up to 90 percent of the BND's informants in East Germany were double agents also run by the Stasi.
The search for a new identity
The BND was forced to redefine itself following the Cold War. "The Iron Curtain doesn't exist anymore; the Soviet Union no longer exists; the Warsaw Pact has been disbanded. Communism has disappeared overnight," said Bernd Schmidbauer, secret services coordinator in the federal chancellery in the mid-1990s. "But now we face new threats and new challenges."
BND headquarters in Pullach
The threats are now terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, and the trafficking of weapons, drugs and people -- not issues a foreign intelligence agency would normally address. The law stipulates that the BND's task is to "collect information necessary to understand other countries which are relevant for Germany in terms of foreign and security policies and then analyze that information."
"The BND must provide the government with information that others cannot offer," said Deputy Interior Minister August Hanning, a former BND president. That includes information open to the public, as well as secret data, he added.
The BND employs around 6,000 agents at its two headquarters in Pullach (near Munich) and Berlin, as well as abroad.
Precise job description
In contrast to other foreign secret services, the BND's tasks are clearly spelled out in a list of no-no's: no activities within Germany, no subversive operations abroad, and strict political control of the organization by a parliamentary committee, which includes members from all parties represented in the Bundestag.
The BND has increased its cooperation with partner agencies in eastern Europe to better address organized crime and learn more about smugglers' routes. The agency also employs a host of experts on the Middle East, making it an important player in the fight against terrorism and in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The New York Times reported that the BND worked with the US army during the Iraq war
It comes as no surprise, then, that the BND provided the United States with information before the start of the war in Iraq. "Of course we didn't suspend the cooperation between our agencies," said Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier -- who oversaw the secret services at the time -- when he explained the situation to the Bundestag.
"That was our approach, and it was right because despite the differences between Germany and the US over the war, the United States was still a partner and an ally. That decision was right because our shared opponent was and remains international terrorism," Steinmeier said.