A secret report revealed last week that the spy agency had journalists snoop on colleagues.
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.