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Taking down the nation's top spy

April 27, 2016

Gerhard Schindler is leaving the BND before his term is over. The timing and circumstances of his departure are puzzling. And the government’s dealing in secrecy is doing little to build trust, says Marcel Fürstenau.

Gerhard Schindler BND
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

The president of Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND), Gerhard Schindler, did not fulfill the government's expectations, and must therefore leave his post before his term is up. That's the unofficial interpretation of his departure, to take effect on July 1.

Officially, there's been no explanation, nor is the government obligated to issue one.

However, the chancellery would be well advised to explain the late replacement at the head of the agency. After all, there have been well-founded reasons for such a move for a very long time - the main one being the NSA affair, which became public in the summer of 2013. A parliamentary committee has been investigating the involvement of the BND in the affair for the better part of two years. The members of the committee, several of whom are also members of the parliamentary control board for the intelligence services, admitted to being surprised by the announcement of Schindler's replacement.

Surprise announcement

Not so the cabinet members. Both Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Economics Minister and Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (both SPD) have long been in the know about Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier's (CDU) plans. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) has said he was not involved in the decision, despite the fact that Schindler's successor, Bruno Kahl, is said to be a close confidante of his. Several MPs have said they suspect Schäuble of having put his stamp on the decision, whatever motives he may have had.

The only question is, why is the government generally, and the chancellery in particular, being so evasive?

Marcel Fürstenau
DW's Marcel FürstenauImage: DW/S. Eichberg

Nobody could credibly contradict Schindler's removal were it based on his questionable role in the BND/NSA affair.

For years now, media reports as well as the work of the parliamentary investigation committee have awakened the impression that the foreign intelligence agency has taken on an uncontrollable life of its own. If this conclusion is true, then Schindler's dismissal should have come at least a year ago.

Schindler's leadership called into question a year ago

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert accused the BND of "technical and organizational deficits" back in April 2015. Fixing such deficits is the job of the president, no question. That also goes for deficits that Schindler may have inherited from his predecessors. And they are many. But topping the list is the illegal spying on German citizens and institutions within a cooperation agreement with the NSA. The cooperation was possible, because the laws governing the BND are formulated so unclearly as to allow staff to act at their own discretion.

It seems that many intelligence agents chose to believe that anything that is not expressly forbidden, is allowed. You can't judge them too harshly. During these times of increasing threats from international terrorism, we look to the BND to protect Germany from attacks like the ones in Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul.

The real motive remains unclear

The government sets the priorities for Germany's foreign intelligence service. Parliament supplies the legal framework. There have long been plans to reform the laws governing the BND. Altmaier is now pushing for new laws to be passed this year. Better late than never, one might say.

Despite this, the suspicion remains that Schindler's departure could be a diversionary tactic. The motive: demonstrating strength. But the timing and the language being used create a different impression. Altmaier thanked Schindler for his "many years of commendable work" before banishing him to the desert. Clearly, the government no longer trusts Schindler to handle the "big challenges" facing the BND. It should not be a problem to say as much. But since no one will, they shouldn't be surprised that other motives are suspected of being behind Schindler's removal. And that's the burden that will be inherited by his successor.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.