A headline-grabbing clash between a spy agency and the major media outlets - including classified leaks. No, not in Washington. This scandal is emerging in Berlin.
The controversy stems from a 170-page report delivered in a secret parliamentary committee session last week. The document reveals that the German intelligence agency systematically spied on journalists, even recruiting some reporters to snoop on their colleagues. Among them was a writer for Focus, a major national magazine, who reportedly worked for the agency from 1982 to 1998 under the code name "Dali" and received 600,000 deutsche marks - approximately $375,000.
Surfacing just as Parliament begins investigating the agency, known as the BND, for other alleged misdeeds, the scandal gets to the heart of the relationship between government and the press, and the conflicts that sometimes arise between their respective roles of keeping the public safe and keeping the public informed about government activities.
The BND argues that the media-monitoring was born of necessity. "When the program started, there were a couple breaches and leaks that threatened our fundamental security," says an agency spokesman who asked that his name be withheld. "The program was an effort to find traitors in our ranks, not to influence the activities or reporting of journalists."
But Annabelle Arki, chief of Reporters Without Borders European desk, counters that efforts to root out leaks invariably stifle reporting. "The danger is obvious," she says. "If journalists cannot protect their sources, no one will speak to them, and the press can't perform its role of providing information that the public needs in a democracy."
The debate echoes those surrounding the Valerie Plame case in the US, and revelations that the CIA used polygraph tests to investigate leaks about secret prisons in Europe. That debate could flare up again, following an ABC News report this week that the FBI is seeking to obtain reporters' phone records to pinpoint leaks about the prisons and warrantless wiretapping.
German politicians and press advocates alike are wasting no time responding to the allegations and the resulting outcry. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration ordered the BND to quit spying on reporters. "This includes especially, but not exclusively, a ban on using journalists as sources for the service," said government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm.
In the last few days, the German press association and a number of politicians have demanded that the 170-page report, prepared by former chief federal justice Gerhard Schäfer, be made public. Mr. Wilhelm initially had said it wouldn't be released. But Norbert Röttgen, who chairs the committee that commissioned the investigation, promised Tuesday that it would. A final decision is expected later this week.
Reporters Without Borders, concerned that the media's credibility is at stake, has demanded a second investigation on the use of journalists as spies.
"Journalists who provide information to a state body, especially a secret state body, are working against the mission of their profession," Ms. Arki explains. "We need to know who ordered this, and which reporters have discredited the media by taking part."
Der Spiegel magazine, known for hard-charging investigative work, admitted Monday that two of its reporters were feeding the BND information - one of them as recently as last fall. Focus and Stern, two other major news magazines, have also discovered there were spies among their ranks.
Focus, Der Spiegel, Berliner Zeitung, and WDR television have also reported that the BND spied on their reporters. The Süddeutsche Zeitung, the nation's largest regional daily, also reported that senior editor Wolfgang Krach was tailed after reporting that the BND helped smuggle plutonium from Russia to Germany. Mr. Krach says the paper learned the news from parliamentarians who attended the Schäfer briefing.
"I was completely astonished," he says in a telephone interview. "I have written many stories about intelligence and never imagined that the German secret service would monitor journalists in Germany."
The BND was known to have spied on at least two journalists even before Schäfer presented his report. The first case to become public was that of reporter Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, who was tailed for years beginning in 1993, after he wrote a book with inside information on the agency.
Mr. Schmidt-Eenboom says he learned he was under surveillance from a former BND agent in May 2005, and two months later began demanding that the government turn over documents related to his case.
But come last September, his pleas still hadn't been answered, so he began threatening to talk to the media. He says that's when he received a menacing anonymous call. "They said if I gave those facts to the public they would slaughter me," he recalls.
Undeterred, Schmidt-Eenboom went public in November. His account unleashed a public outrage and prompted a preliminary parliamentary investigation, which found that he - and Focus reporter Josef Hufelshulte - had both been shadowed for years.
The BND promptly apologized to both reporters. It also turned over Schmidt-Eenboom's BND file, which, he says, showed that the agency had monitored his office with cameras and assigned at least six spies to tail him and his secretary. He also says that agents crouched in bushes outside his home and foraged through his garbage.
Troubled by the preliminary probe's findings, the Parliament committee overseeing intelligence launched a full-scale investigation, which culminated in the Schäfer report.
The BND is hardly the first intelligence organization to tap the press. A number of its peer agencies - including the CIA - have, at times, had agents pose as reporters or used journalists as spies.
In the 1970s, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence discovered that 50 US journalists had doubled as CIA agents during the cold war. The committee condemned the practice in its final report, and urged intelligence agencies to "permit American journalists and news organizations to pursue their work without jeopardizing their credibility." In 1996, Congress debated passing a law limiting the circumstances under which CIA agents could pose as journalists or employing reporters as informers. But the law didn't pass.
While the Merkel administration hasn't announced any specific enforcement measures, it has promised to curtail abuses for reporters' sake. "I can assure you," spokesman Wilhelm said Monday, "that you will always have the federal government as a partner in defending the press, freedom of information, and the basic, constitutional rights of our democratic system."