BND: The spies who silenced their critics in war on terror

For years, the Germans were the laughing stock of the world's secret services. With a reputation for being ineffectual, unreliable and useless at gathering intelligence, the Bundesnachrichtendienst even had a poor reputation at home, with one German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, complaining the BND only ever told him what he had already read in the newspaper.

Since the cold war ended, the BND has been transforming itself into an effective operational service focused in particular on terrorism. It even helped avert a terrorist attack in India a couple of years ago. "You don't see people making fun of them anymore," said Tyler Drumheller, the former head of the CIA in Europe.

A clear sign of this confidence is a 10 hectare building site on Chausseestrasse, Berlin, where in East German times there was a sports stadium named after Walter Ulbricht, the GDR politician responsible for building the Berlin Wall. The architects, Kleihues + Kleihues, were told to design a complex big enough for 4,000 workers - with the possibility to expand to fit another thousand spooks if needed.

The building symbolises not just the BND's growing stature but also a closer relationship with the German government, which will be just across the River Spree. "The government wants to use it much more intensively as an instrument of security policy than it used to," said Professor Wolfgang Krieger of Marburg University.

Traditionally an "analytic" service that supported US intelligence agencies, the BND now operates independently around the world, in particular the Middle East and regions where the German army, the Bundeswehr, is deployed.

It has had a chequered past. Curveball - the Iraqi defector whose false claims about a biological weapons programme the then US secretary of state Colin Powell used at the UN in February 2003 to justify invading - was a BND source. The Germans gave US intelligence agencies reports about Curveball's claims but refused to allow the Americans to interview him and judge his credibility for themselves. Curveball, whose real name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, recently told the Guardian he had lied.

Germany opposed the Iraq war, but, with the approval of the then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff, two BND agents remained in Baghdad and provided information to the headquarters of General Tommy Franks, the US commander of the invasion, in Qatar. Franks later said they were "invaluable", but a German parliamentary investigation found that they had not assisted US military operations in Iraq.

A BND agent mediates between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas - for example in negotiations for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, taken in 2006. The BND is uniquely trusted by both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict: Germany is an ally of Israel with longstanding security co-operation between the two countries, but untainted by a colonial past. Yet the BND originated in the Nazi era: it was created by Major-General Reinhard Gehlen, who spied on the Red Army for Adolf Hitler.

[Source: By Hans Kundnani and Helen Pidd in Berlin, The Guardian, London, 18Mar12]

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Este documento ha sido publicado el 04abr12 por el Equipo Nizkor y Derechos Human Rights