Did German Intelligence Fuel Far-Right Extremism?
This article originally appeared in German in issue 45/2012 (November 5, 2012) of DER SPIEGEL.
A secret paper written by senior police officers paints a disastrous picture of Germany's domestic intelligence agency. It suggests that the service may have actually strengthened the country's far-right scene through its large network of far-right informants.
It's a Wednesday in early summer 2012, on the terrace of a Chinese restaurant in Nuremberg's city center. Kai D., 48, once one of the most subversive activists in the German neo-Nazi community, is sitting at a table, drinking a glass of roasted wheat tea, the house specialty, eagerly answering questions about his past in the right-wing extremist community
On one subject, however, D. becomes tight-lipped. No, he says vehemently, "at no time, not even remotely" was he an informant for the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying.
Apparently, D. is still stretching the truth today. Responding to research conducted by SPIEGEL reporters, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), has told members of the Bavarian state parliament that D. worked with the Bavarian state intelligence service between the end of 1987 and 1998. D. was a major informant, and he was also one of the masterminds in the neo-Nazi network.
German law enforcement authorities uncovered the NSU right-wing terrorist cell almost exactly a year ago. On Nov. 4, 2011, the police found the bodies of Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt in a camper parked in the eastern city of Eisenach. The NSU claimed responsibility for killing at least nine men and a policewoman during a seven-year murder spree that began in 2000. The male victims, all of them shopkeepers or employeed in small businesses, belonged to ethnic minorities -- eight were of Turkish origin and one was Greek.
Four parliamentary committees of inquiry are currently dissecting the work of law enforcement units, and four department heads have already resigned. The government's failures in fighting right-wing terrorists have plunged the domestic intelligence service into the worst crisis since it was established. It was set up in postwar Germany to identify and stop the spread of precisely the kind of extremist thinking that allowed the Nazis to rise to power in the 1930s. The discovery of the NSU and its crimes, however, has shaken the system to its core.
The committees are currently examining more than 100,000 pages of classified documents. The more secrets come to light, the clearer it becomes how extensively intelligence agencies had infiltrated right-wing extremist groups. The trio of neo-Nazis that made up the NSU was surrounded by informants linked with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and Kai D. was only one of many. Nevertheless, the authorities had no idea what plans were being hatched in the neo-Nazi underground. The system of undercover informants had failed.
One of the big questions now being asked is whether the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and its methods are suited to protecting the German constitution -- or whether it actually strengthened militant right-wing groups. "It cannot be that informants are being used who are more harmful to the community than they are beneficial," says Thomas Oppermann, a senior lawmaker for the opposition Social Democratic Party.
Once before, during the failed effort to ban the far-right NPD party in 2003, the links between law enforcement and right-wing extremist groups led to a political fiasco. The Federal Constitutional Court rejected the motion to ban the NPD because it appeared as if the government could in fact be controlling the right-wing extremists through its informants.
The discussion is now being fueled by a previously unknown position paper dating from 1997. It comes from an authoritative source: the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), Germany's version of the FBI. At the time, the police officials leveled serious charges against their counterparts with the German intelligence agencies, just a year before the NSU terrorists, who had operated in the eastern city of Jena, went into hiding. In the position paper that has now surfaced, which is still classified as "secret," the BKA listed 10 theories that were presented to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
The BKA document centers around the core idea that the informants egged each other on, essentially acting as incendiary agents. Instead of decisively combatting the neo-Nazis, the BKA posits, the intelligence agency protected them, and judging by the way the Office for the Protection of the Constitution deployed its informants, they became part of the problem and not part of the solution.
The classified document, which SPIEGEL has obtained, is both an urgent warning and an indictment of the agents at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Did the intelligence service, intoxicated by the exclusive access it had gained, in fact protect some members of the far right? Is it indirectly responsible for the strengthening of militant neo-Nazi structures in the 1990s, from which the NSU, the most brutal and militant of all the extremist groups, emerged?
The BKA paper was written at a time, just after German reunification, when right-wing extremist groups were bursting with strength. Attacks against foreigners in the eastern cities of Hoyerswerda and Rostock in 1991 and 1992 respectively were followed by deadly arson attacks against Turkish inhabitants in Mölln, a town near Hamburg, and in Solingen in the west. Hundreds of neo-Nazi skinheads staged rallies every August to mark the anniversary of the death of Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess. Entire sections of eastern Germany became practically off-limits for foreigners. Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe -- the third member of the NSU group who is being held in police custody as she awaits trial -- grew up in a self-confident political movement that was enjoying unchecked growth.
The BKA stepped up its investigations to find out who was responsible for what crimes. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, for its part, infiltrated the neo-Nazi community, wanting to understand its structures and identify the masterminds and leaders, on the one hand, and their followers, on the other.
In the mid-1990s, the intelligence agencies -- which operate with both a national agency as well as regional branches in the 16 German federal states -- managed to recruit a large number of sources within the far-right community. For some activists, this conspiratorial cooperation with what they in fact saw as the hated "federal system" proved to be a blessing, since the intelligence agents had a vital interest in making sure that their spies would not be prosecuted.
This had to lead to conflicts between police and intelligence. According to the position paper, the tensions came to a head on Nov. 27, 1996, during a top-level meeting between the presidents of the BKA and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution to discuss the crisis. The BKA officials instructed their state security division, which works to combat politically motivated crime, to ascertain the problems at a "working level".
Part 2: BKA Warns Intelligence Services
A few months later, on Feb. 3, 1997, the BKA's state security officers summarized their critique, as instructed, in a 14-page "position paper." According to the document, the cause of the problems was the "increasing divergence between the operations of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and law enforcement measures." From the BKA's standpoint, this was attributable to "source activities." The authors of the position paper reached the following conclusions:
- There was a "risk that sources of the intelligence service (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) could goad each other on to undertake bigger actions;" in other words, the system threatened to create an "incendiary effect."
- "For reasons of source protection," by the time the intelligence service passed on information to the police, it was often "too late," so that right-wing extremist actions "could no longer be prevented."
- When the intelligence service was informed about police raids, it was noted that "the sources had often been warned beforehand." This created "the risk that evidence would be destroyed prior to the arrival of law enforcement authorities."
- Intelligence service sources that were "found to be criminals," were often "neither indicted nor convicted."
- "The majority of the sources" were "staunch right-wing extremists" who believed "that they could act with impunity and pursue their ideology, under the protection of the intelligence service, and didn't have to take law enforcement seriously."
In their analysis, the police listed nine sources by name and described how the intelligence service's informants were repeatedly found to be organizers or instigators of right-wing extremist activities.
For instance, the BKA document notes, an informant within the leadership of the neo-Nazi Free German Workers' Party (Freiheitliche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or FAP) organized conspiratorial party meetings that the police tried to prevent, but to no avail. The informant was apparently warned of the impending ban of the FAP in February 1995, so that he was able to shred two garbage bags full of incriminating material. When questioned, the informant's father said that he had long been astonished over "how well-informed his son was about police and judicial activities."
Another informant, who was suspected of involvement in letter-bomb attacks, was tipped off and managed to evade arrest by going to Greece in March 1995. The BKA allegedly searched his apartment during a nationwide raid. When the police questioned the neo-Nazi in another matter, after he had returned to Germany, they allowed him to call his attorney. But the informant called his handler instead and asked for help. The handler told the informant what to say to the police. During the conversation, the informant complained about not having been "warned in advance" that the BKA had had him under surveillance.
According to the BKA document, the intelligence service had even recruited Andree Z., one of the leaders of the notorious neo-Nazi group Sauerland Action Front (Sauerländer Aktionsfront), as a source. Z., who used the pseudonym "Lutscher" and died in a car accident in late 1997, was viewed as someone who had whipped up neo-Nazi sentiment and radicalized the community. When the Federal Attorney's Office launched an investigation against Z., who was suspected of having formed a criminal organization, the intelligence service apparently notified Z. immediately. After that, the BKA complained, "no relevant telephone conversations" could be recorded anymore.
A Who's Who of the Far-Right Community
The links between the neo-Nazi community and the intelligence services seemed especially apparent to the BKA when it came to the annual memorial marches for Rudolf Hess. If the BKA is to be believed, there were no fewer than five informants among the coordinators of the "Rudolf Hess Action Week" in August 1994. The list reads like a Who's Who of the far-right community at the time, and it includes Andree Z. and Kai D.
Not long afterwards, the BKA's state security division noticed that the duo was once again involved in organizing the Hess rally, this time on Aug. 17, 1996. "It was determined," the BKA document reads, that the informants' activities "went well beyond a passive role." For instance, Z. was apparently named press spokesman for the event, while Kai D. designed the main flyer and propaganda stickers advertising the march.
According to the BKA, informant D., who was part of the 11-member "action committee" for the banned Hess festivities, took part in preparatory meetings and sent "strictly confidential" memos to fellow neo-Nazis. The main rally was planned in a highly conspiratorial way, so that the location of the event, in the southwestern city of Worms, was only announced shortly before the demonstration.
Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe attended the march in 1996. Kai D., however, chose to watch the carefully planned rally from a safe distance.
It wasn't until the afternoon of that Aug. 17, 1996 that the police apprehended him, after he had crossed the border into Luxembourg in a car traveling above the speed limit. D. was taken to a police station in nearby Saarbrücken, where he demanded to speak to an agent with the state security division, saying that he had "an important message." He was unwilling to accept "ordinary officers," the police noted, and was only willing to talk to someone with the State Criminal Police Office (LKA).
When his request was granted and two LKA officers appeared a short time later, the right-wing extremist was assertive, saying that if he wasn't released so that he could "de-escalate" the situation, things could very well get worse. He said that he had to call a certain number at regular intervals, or else there might be "attacks." D. was released a few hours later.
It wasn't the first time that the informant had gotten off lightly. An investigation launched against him by authorities in the eastern state of Thuringia, who suspected him and a friend, Thuringia informant Tino Brandt, of involvement in the "formation of a criminal organization," also came to nothing.
Part 3: Divided Loyalties
Confidential informants like Kai D. can be the most valuable tool for the intelligence services, because they can go to places were the authorities cannot. But they also pose a risk to democracy. The letter "V" in "V-Mann" -- "Vertrauens-Mann," the German term for informant, which translates loosely as "Confidence Man" -- doesn't really stand for "Vertrauen," or "confidence," but for "Verrat" ("betrayal"), says Hans-Jürgen Förster, the former head of domestic intelligence for the eastern state of Brandenburg.
Informants often have divided loyalties. In addition to lying to and deceiving their own people, they often do the same to the authorities. Under the cover of working for the intelligence services, they can operate without interference. When that happens, they are not protecting the constitution but are in fact combatting it, both benefiting from and weakening the state at the same time. This is why the use of informants is one of the most sensitive tools available to a constitutional state.
In the ideal world of the intelligence services, agents don't sympathize with their informants or tell them when the next raid is going to take place. This ideal world is described in the "Procurement Regulation for the Office of the Protection of the Constitution," which remains a classified document to this day. According to the regulation, informants, who are given grades of A through F, are at best "tried and tested for a longer period of time," report "only the truth" and have "no character defects."
And then there is the other world, the one that's probably more in line with the truth. It is populated by neo-Nazis who serve up their handlers a mixture of truth and lies, and are paid to do so at the expense of taxpayers. In this world, government agents and their informants have become accustomed to one another, and handlers treat any access as a treasure, which is jealously guarded, both from other state agencies and the police. Passing on information is considered a risk.
This creeping fraternization is cold and analytical, especially in the far-right community, where there are no linguistic and sometimes hardly any cultural barriers between informants and their handlers, and the dangers of too much closeness are omnipresent.
Are Informants Really Necessary?
After 20 years with the intelligence service, it became clear to him that "the (German) constitutional state cannot afford to keep using informants in the way it has in the past," Winfried Ridder, a retired former division head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, said last week. Ridder believes that the defect is embedded in the system, and that the government could ditch its extremist sources. Instead, he recommends that government agencies infiltrate potential terrorist groups by providing agents with false identities and sending them in to operate undercover.
So far, none of the state interior ministers has been willing to go that far. "It doesn't work without informants," says German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU). "If we no longer have informants, we get no information from the community." The government, he adds, can't operate blindly when it comes to right-wing extremist groups. Most of his counterparts at the state level agree.
In fact, informants have provided valuable information in many cases. When the Bavarian state Office for the Protection of the Constitution received a tip from a source in 2003, it was able to prevent a bombing that neo-Nazi Martin Wiese and his group had planned to commit at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Jewish community center in Munich. The BND foreign intelligence service and the Office of the Protection of the Constitution also learned of several bombings being planned by Islamists from their sources. "Without informants, we would no longer have access to key information," warns Ulrich Mäurer, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the interior minister of the city-state of Bremen.
Mäurer has taken an unusual step. In the future, the Bremen parliament will monitor the use of informants, and no sources will be used without the approval of lawmakers. It's a reform in which the executive is surrendering power to the legislative branch of government.
Mäurer's initiative resembles a proposal by the former intelligence chief for the state of Brandenburg, Hans-Jürgen Förster, that informants could only be recruited after their case has been reviewed by a judge, a procedure similar to that required for telephone wiretapping. Förster hopes that this will "improve the legitimacy and standing" of the program, and that it will also enhance "internal discipline," because intelligence agents will know that someone is looking over their shoulder.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution has since established a task force to track and monitor the work of source managers. The supervisors will be able to keep tabs on their colleagues as they recruit, manage and follow up with informants, so that problematic cases can be detected early on and stopped if necessary. The interior ministers plan to approve new "guidelines for managing informants" soon and introduce uniform, nationwide standards. They are also discussing a central database for all informants.
"The culture of cooperation between the police and intelligence service has already changed," says Hans-Georg Maassen, the new president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Thanks to positive experiences at the Joint Counterterrorism Center (GTAZ) in Berlin -- which was established in 2004 and includes the BND, Office for the Protection of the Constitution and other state and national agencies -- Massen adds, "a more intensive and trusting system of exchange has become established than in the past."
Domestic Intelligence Ignored BKA Criticism
During the late 1990s, before the NSU had committed its series of murders, officials at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution simply ignored the criticism coming from the BKA. At a conference in the central German town of Goslar in April 1997, federal and state intelligence chiefs discussed the BKA's position paper, but they saw no reason to change anything. The Interior Ministry, which became involved in the ongoing conflict, also took no action. Various cases came to light of high-ranking informants who had enjoyed the protection of the intelligence services.
Bavarian Interior Minister Herrmann has since explained why his top source, Kai D., was unable to help in the search for the NSU terrorists: D.'s "observation orders" apparently did not extend to Thüringer Heimatschutz. Besides, says Herrmann, D. was discontinued as an informant in June 1998, after rumors had surfaced that he was working for the government. However, Bavaria's regional intelligence agency continued to manage him until 2000, because of an ongoing investigation.
The officials weren't quite willing to do without their former informant, after all. The intelligence services used him again between the end of 2008 and June 2009, this time in an organized crime case.
The informant was simply too effective for the government to dispense with his services.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan