Germans weigh right vs wrong in spying, terror war
BERLIN, Mar 21: In an invasion launched by 125,000 US and British soldiers to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, what role did two German spies play? Three years after the offensive began, a question that might appear academic has kicked up a political storm in Germany.
Whether the two agents supplied the Americans with operational intelligence to guide their bombing raids, despite the Berlin government's strong public opposition to the war, is the issue at the heart of a looming parliamentary inquiry.
But the probe -- expected to be approved by lawmakers at the end of this month -- will also examine a series of wider questions about the methods used by German and foreign security services to fight terrorism.
It will seek answers about the alleged CIA abduction of a German national to Afghanistan and ask whether it was right for German security services to interview terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay and in a Syrian jail.
Expected to run for many months, the inquiry may prove a landmark for a country whose attitude towards secret services is still partly conditioned by its experience of the Nazi Gestapo and the communist East German Stasi secret police.
Germany is also still adjusting to a more active international role since unification in 1990, partly reflected in troop deployments from the Balkans to Afghanistan.
''The German public is still having to get used to the fact that we are a middle-ranking power with international interests, and the BND (foreign intelligence agency) is a part of attending to those,'' said Dieter Wiefelspuetz, home affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats (SPD).
''The debate is perhaps inconceivable in states like Britain or the United States where it's taken for granted that the state has foreign security interests and has to have active intelligence services of its own.'' BAGHDAD AGENTS The SPD-Greens government in power at the start of the Iraq war was replaced last year by a conservative-SPD coalition which tried unsuccessfully to fend off an inquiry, denying that the Baghdad agents supplied the Americans with bombing targets.
It did however acknowledge that apart from information on 'non-targets', such as hospitals and schools, the agents gave some details of the police and military presence in Baghdad.
To some opposition politicians, even 'non-target' information was a contribution to the war.
They do not accept the 'pragmatic' argument that once war could no longer be prevented, intelligence support was justified because it was in Germany's interest that the United States should win as quickly as possible.
''That is a valid consideration but if I consider it an illegal war of aggression, I can't say: 'Since it's started, I'll support it,''' said Hans-Christian Stroebele, intelligence expert for the Greens, who are now in opposition. RULE OF LAW The controversy is part of a debate in Germany on how the state can tackle 21st century security threats while respecting the rule of law and whether existing powers are sufficient.
In a landmark ruling, the country's highest court last month threw out a law allowing the military to shoot down hijacked planes in order to prevent a Sept. 11-style attack that would kill even more people on the ground.
Critics of the judgment said it left the state effectively paralysed in the event that terrorists commandeered a plane and set it on course to smash into, say, a nuclear power plant.
The court said that shooting down the aircraft was incompatible with human dignity and the right to life, as the passengers would be reduced to ''mere objects'' and sacrificed .
The same uncompromising moral logic is evident in some of the arguments over the intelligence services.
Opposition parties have criticised the security agencies for accepting a US invitation to question two men in 2002 in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for terrorist suspects.
They argue that Germany should shun all involvement with Guantanamo on human rights grounds, even though there were security reasons for questioning both men -- one a German-born Turkish man who had been arrested in Pakistan, and the other an associate of the Hamburg cell that led the September 11 attacks.
Wiefelspuetz said he believed the visit was justified at the time but could no longer take place today, after years of mounting human rights concerns about treatment of detainees.
''Today a BND agent would no longer go to Guantanamo ...
Today Guantanamo is contaminated ground,'' he said.
Some politicians argue security services should reject any foreign intelligence they receive if there are grounds to think it was obtained under torture.
''For the Greens, it is clear - we don't want to harvest any of the fruits of torture, even indirectly,'' Stroebele said.
The government has argued that the intelligence inquiry will be a time-consuming distraction that will further fan negative sentiment towards the United States.
Some security analysts fear that by dragging the BND into the spotlight, it will damage its international cooperation with foreign agencies. But they acknowledge the need for a debate.
''We haven't had in Germany a proper kind of unexcited debate about the necessity and the use of secret services in fighting new dangers to our security, terrorism just being one of them,'' said Eberhard Sandschneider, head of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
The SPD's Wiefelspuetz said the BND could actually emerge strengthened from an inquiry into its role in Baghdad.
''We should be proud we succeeded in placing two agents there,'' he said. ''I think the German public and German politics are in a learning process that intelligence services belong, and have to belong, to this state, and will belong in the future.''