Viewpoints

A Little Spying between Friends: Historical Reflections on the American-German Espionage Imbroglio

Keith R. Allen, July 2014

Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent decision to expel the CIA chief of station in Berlin appears to have thrown German criticism of American espionage activities into overdrive. Even with the country immersed in the high drama of the World Cup, Merkel's announcement galvanized the media: hard-driving journalists, in outlets ranging from the Süddeutsche Zeitung to Der Spiegel, portrayed it as a signal of new relations between Germany and the most powerful country on earth.

Sometimes, however, it's the relatively obscure item in the back pages of the lesser-known newspapers, not the well-orchestrated diplomatic maneuver and accompanying press conference in the capital, that warrants closer attention.

The week prior to the expulsion of the CIA chief witnessed a rare public acknowledgment from the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), or Federal Intelligence Service (the German equivalent of the CIA). During the first week of July, the Federal Intelligence Service confirmed the closure of its long-secret Joint Interrogation Centers (JICs) (Zweigstellen für Befragungswesen in German).

For nearly 60 years, at little-known sites across the country, German and other Western intelligence agents subjected asylum seekers, refugees, and others entering the Federal Republic to intense rounds of questioning. The story of the JICs, born in a spy scandal and closed in the middle of a much larger one, provides a telling example of how espionage disputes involving the United States and Germany have been resolved in the past. The tale of the JICs also offers clues to how German-led exploitation of intelligence may unfold in the future.

The JICs, the Germans, and the Paradox of Public Scrutiny

During the mid-1950s, West German newspapers featured stinging criticism of American efforts to exploit, for intelligence purposes, the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in West Germany each year. Public figures, including the country's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, were called on to curb American espionage excesses. Although an American-led Cold War loomed large, West German leaders felt compelled to limit American influence on the westward movement of Germans. At a news conference held in West Berlin in October 1958, Adenauer was asked whether Americans and other Western allies based in the divided city were interrogating Germans fleeing Communist oppression and were employing refugees as agents. Adenauer demurred, allowing a minister to provide his government's reassurance that confidential negotiations had brought the practice, at least in Berlin, to an end.

Adenauer's refusal to comment was prescient, for as friends and foes alike promptly asserted, his minister's assessment was mistaken. Another cabinet member, Adenauer's minister for refugees, a notorious ex-Nazi who in correspondence with West Germany's foreign minister had gone so far as to compare American interrogation techniques with those of East Germany's Stasi, was among the first to point out the rights of American, British, and French occupiers to interrogate whomever, whenever they pleased-in West Berlin, if no longer in West Germany.

The distinction actually mattered, though few contemporaries took full account of it. Secretly, the first JICs had been opened under German stewardship in April 1958, a few months before Adenauer's press conference. The dispute over American espionage continued to smolder, with a debate about refugee interrogation in Berlin jumping the English Channel to the House of Commons. Related events-including a major international crisis culminating in the building of the Berlin Wall-subsequently eclipsed the hardships faced by newcomers.

The Soviet-led encirclement of West Berlin brought about a precipitous decline in the number of those leaving East Germany. But even after the unprecedented events of August 1961, many thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and others from across East Central Europe and indeed beyond continued to reach West Germany annually. As recently as June 30 of this year, German and Allied intelligence officers stationed at the Joint Interrogation Centers were among the first officials to receive them. Located in West German cities stretching from the North Sea to the Alps, and all along the inner German border in close proximity to refugee processing centers, the JICs compelled escapees, deserters, asylum seekers, ethnic Germans, and many others to disclose their knowledge of threatening societies to domestic and foreign intelligence services.

The Interrogator's Voice

In response to public anger at American espionage activities nearly 60 years ago, West German officials were granted an expanded role in the processing of refugees. Given the chancellor's recent decision to expel America's top spy, and key cabinet ministers' calls at this winter's Munich Security Conference for a more assertive German foreign policy, the resolution of the current round of German-American tensions-not to mention the ongoing military conflict in eastern Ukraine-may well involve an expansion of Germany's foreign and domestic surveillance apparatus. This possibility encourages us to look more closely at how German-led intelligence efforts were conducted in the midst of the last all-encompassing global ideological and military struggle.

Exploitation reports produced by employees of the Federal Intelligence Service capture the impressions of the JIC interrogators. Occasionally the encounter between spy and refugee unfolded smoothly, as was the case with the questioning of a computer scientist who had fled to West Germany via Prague in April 1969. Interrogators in Munich judged him a "source par excellence." Praise did not end there: the source was "ready to supply answers, credible, intelligent, and open-minded, knowledgeable and technically well-versed, in his answers brief and concise, in essence, a sympathetic character." The expert proved "an oasis in the desert of daily interrogations." After ten hours of questioning, the new arrival had supplied a sketch of important military and economic targets in East Berlin.

The interrogation of a postdoctoral researcher in South Asian studies yielded headaches. Brought to the JIC in the city of Mainz by the Frankfurt airport police, she had arrived by plane from Delhi. Her interrogation in September 1970 began on cordial terms, with the scholar "initially friendly and ready to provide testimony." The next day matters took an unexpected turn for the worse, with a now-reluctant informant expressing the view that she was being held "like a prisoner." A heated discussion nearly brought the questioning to a premature end. With encouragement, however, the source appears to have agreed to supply personal details about her former colleagues at East Germany's leading university, the country's foreign ministry, and contacts in India. Had pressure been applied? Her documentation provides no clear answer. A handwritten note from someone in the West German intelligence machinery indicates that, notwithstanding concerns about the reliability of her account and possible Stasi contact, her report be brought to the attention of contacts in Bonn, then West Germany's capital.

Interrogating Refugees, Then and Now

The Joint Interrogation Centers, established in the midst of an intelligence scandal in which American practices assumed center stage, have now closed their doors in the midst of a remarkably similar, albeit much larger, espionage imbroglio. The collapse of Communism and the refinement of mass electronic surveillance over the past several decades did not halt the questioning of individuals such as the two sources cited above: as the Federal Intelligence Service has acknowledged, the JICs soldiered on until the end of June. Probably the most infamous example of refugee exploitation in Germany emerged after the Cold War, when an Iraqi asylum seeker-"Curveball," according to his American intelligence cryptonym-offered spurious details about his country's alleged weapons of mass destruction program, an account subsequently employed to justify the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Face-to-face interrogation, leading German intelligence officials have confirmed, will continue without the formal institution of the JICs, with the geographic focus of questioning shifting from Germany's West to what have been described as "crisis regions." Extensive cooperation between German and other Western agencies seems likely to persist, notwithstanding public flare-ups occasioned by this month's disclosures; concurrently, turf fights between the respective governments over access to informants and the firsthand accounts they provide will undoubtedly shape responses to future threats-and opportunities. Having outlasted the collapse of the Berlin Wall by nearly 25 years, the interrogation centers remind us that the ongoing international struggle over personal liberty and security, but also that oldest of political objectives, sovereignty, can yield paradoxical, and long-lasting, consequences.  

Keith R. Allen, a research scholar at the University of Giessen, is investigating refugees and Western intelligence in Germany with the support of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). In 2013, Allen published a study of refugee interrogation in West Berlin entitled Befragung - Überprüfung - Kontrolle. Die Aufnahme von DDR-Flüchtlingen in West-Berlin bis 1961.