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An embarrassment of spies

West Germany will spend years picking up the pieces after what both German and American sources are calling the most damaging spy case in the country's history. Shakeups in the intelligence community and the firing of Heribert Hellenbroich as head of the Federal Intelligence Service (West Germany's CIA) are only the beginning. It all began Aug. 23 with the stunning news that Bonn's top operational counterspy, Hans-Joachim Tiedge, had defected to East Germany. He took with him invaluable knowledge of his agency's personnel, logistics, strategy, and tactics, including methods of surveillance of suspected East German spies.

Following this bombshell Bonn must now:

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Begin the laborious rebuilding of the network of its own counterspies and some spies who may have been compromised;

Tighten up the system of security clearance, especially the lax review of those cleared long ago but currently holding sensitive positions;

Reassure Bonn's skeptical allies that its measures really will be effective this time and will make West Germany less of a security sieve; and,

Express its displeasure to East Berlin without souring inter-German relations in a way that would please only Moscow.

Commentators express grave concern about the apparent turning of Tiedge, a 19-year veteran of highly sensitive posts in the counterintelligence agency called the Verfassungsschutz (Protection of the Constitution). For the last four years Tiedge was the director of the Verfassungsschutz's Section IV, responsible for operations against East German espionage.

The Verfassungsschutz, with responsibility only for German security, is junior to the Federal Intelligence Service, which has responsibility for Soviet and other foreign intelligence (excluding East Germany). The Verfassungsschutz's counterespionage is crucial, however, since the rule of thumb is that some 80 percent of all foreign spies in West Germany are East German.

The greatest damage in the case is universally assumed to have been done already. The boulevard newspaper Bild Zeitung reported that two West German agents in East Germany did manage to flee to safety in West Berlin before they could be arrested -- but many others are assumed to have been jailed. In theory, Tiedge would have known the names only of counterspies, since espionage and counterespionage are kept compartmentalized, but investigators worry that a man in his position might have le arned the names not only of his own counterspies, but also of numerous West German spies in East Germany.

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Beyond personnel lists, Tiedge possesses invaluable knowledge of current Verfassungsschutz operations, logistics, strategy, and tactics, including methods of surveillance of suspected East German spies. According to German press reports he also attended a top secret course in American counterintelligence methods.

As of this writing it is not clear how long Tiedge might have been reporting to the East Germans. The working hypothesis now seems to be not that he was a ``mole'' planted by the East Germans two decades ago, but rather that the alcoholism and heavy debts he fell into after the death of his wife in a bathtub accident three years ago may have pushed him to desperate measures.

There is considerable speculation that an increase in the number of West German agents arrested in East Germany in the past two years might date Tiedge's initial defection. Other speculation goes further back and notes West German failure to expose any major East Germany spy network since 1979.

One of the major unanswered questions in the wake of Tiedge's flight is how his severe personal problems -- a classic invitation to recruitment by a hostile intelligence agency -- could have been glossed over by the Verfassungsschutz.

Neighbors noted Tiedge's frequent drunkenness and beating of his wife and his deterioration and depression after the death of his wife and reported these circumstances to Verfassung- sschutz officials. At one point the woman who cared for Tiedge's children also explicitly told authorities of seeing papers marked ``top secret'' in his home. Yet the then Verfassungsschutz president, Heribert Hellenbroich, retained Tiedge in what is possibly the most sensitive post in West Germany. Hellenbroich reasoned that demoting his long-time friend to a less sensitive position could be even riskier than letting him stay on and could just push the unstable Tiedge into defecting. Hellenbroich, however , never passed on information about this risk to Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann or Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

On Aug. 1 of this year -- before his disgrace --Hellenbroich was promoted to head the Federal Intelligence Service.

Tiedge's flight coincides with the disappearance in August, shortly before their arrest, of four suspected East German spies; the arrest of a further suspect; and leaks about further spy revelations still to come. The suspect who has been arrested was for two decades secretary in the presidential office, where she had access to sensitive material in the areas of security and foreign affairs. One of the suspects who has vanished was a senior secretary to Martin Bangemann, the economics minister and chai rman of the Liberal Party. Other suspects who have not been found include a secretary in a right-wing German refugee organization and a military messenger who had access to the government contingency wartime bunker outside of Bonn.

The conservatives in Bonn's center-right coalition are now pressing for more permissive legislation that would give law-enforcement and security agents wider access to personal data records held by private and public organizations. They would especially like to exercise such review in the case of East German immigrants, all of whom have the right to immediate citizenship in West Germany with few questions asked. The conservatives argue that such checks would speed up the unmasking of East German ``mole s'' who assume the identity of other persons -- as allegedly happened with several spy suspects who have now vanished.

So far, the Liberals in the coalition have opposed such legislation, arguing that in a free society the right of privacy must take priority.

Social Democratic MPs like Erwin Horn, a veteran military expert, are calling instead for much stricter and more frequent reviews of security clearance for those in sensitive positions.

Bonn can presumably lock the barn door on security reviews if it sets its mind to it. What is going to be much more difficult is to rebuild the network of agents that has now been rent asunder by Tiedge's flight. Specialists suggest that for a period of years Bonn will have to assume that its current cadre of counterspies and even many of its spies are useless, subject not only to detection by the East Germans, but also to the channeling of East German disinformation to Bonn.

West Germany will have even more difficulty convincing its allies that it can ever become a reliable recipient of secrets. Its reputation of being riddled with East German spies will only have been reinforced by the Tiedge case.

In the area of inter-German relations both German states are playing the spy affair coolly. East Germany, while clearly pleased with its coup, has not put Tiedge or anyone else on television to gloat and has been restrained in reporting Tiedge's defection in the press.

For his part, Chancellor Kohl has remarked on the possible bad effect of the East German spying on East-West German relations. He has also stressed, however -- in sharp contrast to his own right wing -- that the two states' interests in cooperation should not be sacrificed to the spy scandal. In symbolic expression of its displeasure, Bonn is now doing no more than downgrading the level of its representation at the biannual Leipzig Trade Fair that is just opening in East Germany.

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