17 December 2008

Heroes and Villains

Gerhard Schroeder's opposition to the war in Iraq was a central plank of his campaign for re-election as German Chancellor in 2002. In the years since, however, information about the role of the German intelligence service, the BND, who had two agents in Baghdad immediately before and during the war has gradually been revealed.

When the presence of the two BND agents in Baghdad became known Chancellor Schroeder's government insisted that they had provided no information to the US that could have been used to assist them in their assault. This week Spiegel carried an interview with General General James Marks, the American officer in charge of military intelligence before and during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He tells a different story:
SPIEGEL: Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's former chief of staff at the time, Frank Walter Steinmeier, has said that the BND received a political directive not to supply intelligence to the United States that would "actively support of combat operations."

Marks: Our motto in the intelligence section of the US Army is that "intelligence drives operations". Information forms the basis for every operation. There was nothing more important for us in our intelligence shop than HUMINT directly out of Baghdad. I don't understand why people feel they have to talk down the achievements of these two men today. If you ask me, those guys are heroes.
In the interview Marks offers specific examples of intelligence provided by the BND agents that affected military operations. Spiegel also carries a story placing Mark's comments in the context of the wider story as it has unfolded since 2006.

The story is politically significant since one of Steinmeier's responsibilities was co-ordination of the work of the German intelligence agencies. Steinmeier also happens to be Foreign Minister in the coalition government and has been chosen by the SDP as their candidate to run against Angela Merkel in the federal elections in 2009.

Steinmeier is also due to appear this Thursday before a parliamentary commission in Berlin that is currently investigating the role what the BND agents did and how much the Schroeder government knew.

Naturally, the timing of the story leaves plenty of scope for speculation. Why now, just as Steinmeier is about to testify? Whether conspiracy or coincidence - or perhaps good investigative journalism - it certainly presents Steinmeier with a real challenge.

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