I was a spy but not a traitor," insists Wilhelm (Willy) Dietl, a German journalist and writer, who was revealed to have operated for years in the service of his country's intelligence community. An adventurer, Dietl knows the streets of Hamma, in Syria, as well as the lanes of the market in Peshawar, Pakistan, and he has paid many visits to other countries in the region as well, including Lebanon and Israel. This interview with him took place three weeks ago in Israel. Then he flew to Austria, where he served as an expert witness in a trial centering around a treasure that belonged to the Palestinian terror organization of Abu Nidal.
A Vienna court is trying to determine the identity of the owner of about $7 million, which was deposited in a bank account the Austrian government froze a few years ago, under suspicion that it was connected with the regime of Saddam Hussein. Some time ago, a Palestinian woman bearing a Jordanian passport who lives in Libya, turned up and claimed that the account belonged to her and her partner, businessman Nazir Najamin. However, during the court proceedings a new suspicion arose: that Najamin belonged to the Abu Nidal organization and that the money in the account had accumulated with the aid of front companies established in East Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest during the communist era.
Although he is focused on this new goal, Dietl finds it difficult to forget the scandal that tarnished his name, ruined his reputation and is jolting the media world in Germany. In November 2005, he (along with four other journalists) was exposed as having been an informer for the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) against his journalist colleagues. The weekly Der Spiegel branded him a "traitor," as someone who betrayed his profession and his colleagues by providing information about them; other media outlets published similar accusations.
The scandal began with the revelation by the daily Berliner Zeitung that the BND had for years spied on German journalists. The story sent shock waves through Germany, not least because by doing so the BND exceeded its authority and broke the law. Like the Israeli Mossad and the American CIA, the BND is empowered to collect intelligence only outside the country and is barred from operating on German soil. Now it turned out that not only had the BND been active in Germany, but its targets had been dozens of journalists.
The media reports spawned a parliamentary commission of inquiry. The BND responded with lame explanations: Yes, we spied on journalists, but we did it not to hurt them, but to protect ourselves and state security; neither the journalists nor their opinions nor their political leanings interested us, only their sources. Our only goal, the BND maintained, was to find out who was leaking classified information to journalists.
In order to persuade the inquiry commission, placate public opinion and demonstrate that it was contrite, the BND did the unthinkable for an intelligence organization. Its chief at the time, August Hanning, authorized the BND to give the commission the names of five journalists whom the organization used in missions against their colleagues to uncover the sources of the leaks.
It wasn't long before the names of the five were leaked to the media. One of those on the list was Willy Dietl. "It was shocking to read in the papers and hear my name echoing in the broadcasts of radio and television stations," he says. "The whole reputation I had built for myself in decades of professional work collapsed instantly."
How did you react?
"I had no choice but to admit to it. But not to what I was accused of. I never spied against my journalist colleagues. I never provided information about them. I admitted that for 11 years I was a paid agent of the BND."
You were a spy?
"Yes. I was a spy. I was what you in Israel call a collection officer, I was a handler. I collected information and ran agents. I bribed army officers. I traveled throughout the Middle East - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt - and in doing so I risked my life for Germany."
If so, you were not really a journalist. Was your work only a cover?
"No. I was also a full-fledged professional journalist. I wrote articles, I published books, but the press gave me an excellent cover and many possibilities to execute my other mission: to report on what I saw, to compile reports, to recruit agents and to run them for the BND."
Did you also operate against Israel? After all, you visited here many times and also wrote books about the Mossad.
"In no way. I was never asked to do that, and if I had been I would have refused. I love Israel. I have many friends here and I feel a great commitment to your country. I have always tried to help Israel."
"For example, I once organized a meeting in Turkey between a Lebanese source of mine and Israelis, as part of the efforts to locate Ron Arad [the missing Israel Air Force navigator]."
Who were the Israelis?
"I don't really want to talk about that subject. They presented themselves as people working for a private company who were very interested in the fate of Ron Arad."
Were you present at the meeting?
What were the results?
"The bottom line - nothing. The fact is that Ron Arad was not found and what happened to him is not known."
Wilhelm Dietl wrote a book about an agent named "Erika Chambers" and also devoted a chapter to her in another book. "Her character fascinated me," he says. "I was in Beirut and met PLO people, and they always talked about the operation she took part in. Chambers was the Mossad agent who in 1979 killed Ali Hassan Salameh, who was one of [Yasser] Arafat's assistants - a Palestinian playboy and the operations officer of [the militant Palestinian organization] Black September. He was one of the planners of the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. She pressed the button of the remote control that set off the bomb, which had been placed along the route Salameh was driving."
According to Dietl, Chambers was a British citizen who studied hydrology in Australia, arrived at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the age of 20 or 21 to continue her studies, was recruited by the Mossad and became one of the organization's stars. "The investigation carried out by the PLO found that she had left behind her a trail of addresses in Geneva and Germany, and therefore thought she had done so deliberately so the PLO would believe, mistakenly, that the action was perpetrated by the BND, or that the BND was an accomplice to it, in revenge for Munich."
Did you meet her?
"No. I met members of her family, but not her."
You also wrote extensively about Aliza Magen, who was the deputy chief of the Mossad under Shabtai Shavit in the 1990s.
"Yes. She and Erika appear in a book I wrote about female agents around the world. I met twice with Aliza Magen while researching the book. She told me about her childhood in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Rehavia and about her work in the Mossad, when she was sent in the 1960s to Salzburg to recruit a German scientist, who was working for Nasser's armament project in Egypt. Afterward she worked in the Mossad station in Germany. She was a field agent and held the highest rank of any woman in the Israeli intelligence community."
Dietl was born in 1955 in Bavaria. His parents, he relates, were simple people: His father was a butcher, his mother a housewife. His father was born in 1928, he emphasizes, and was therefore a teenager during World War II. There were no Nazis in his close family: "The region was isolated and so the Nazi influence on everyday life was small. Of course, everyone knew what was going on far from them, but all told, history passed by the region in which I was born."
He took an interest in politics from a young age, he says, and always identified with the Social Democratic Party. His boyhood heroes were chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. His interest in politics led him to journalism at the young age of 17, while he was still in high school. At first he worked for small provincial papers, reporting on events related to police activity, and on the birthdays of residents of local villages and towns. He soon grasped the triviality of what he was doing, and dreamed of becoming a real reporter, one who covers tumultuous events of global importance.
The inspiration for this fantasy came from the books of Karl May (1842-1912), the German writer who described splendidly Indian warriors without ever having set foot in the Wild West. What attracted Dietl even more were May's adventure stories that were set in the Middle East. "I was a bookworm from a young age," he explains. "I read May's books voraciously, and after my parents made me turn out the light in my room, I kept reading under the blanket with a flashlight."
A few years later, Dietl found a more respectable journalistic home in the firm of the daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, and from 1979 in the weekly "Quick" (which shut down more than 10 years ago). The weekly assigned him to write about foreign affairs and sent him to cover wars, crises and international intrigues. "That was the chance of my life, to realize my dream and be a person of the big wide world and of the fantasies I had read about in Karl May," he says.
In 1979, the magazine sent him to Iran, where he covered the Islamic Revolution and met with the man behind it: Ayatollah Khomeini. He was the first Western journalist to reach, clandestinely, the northern Syrian city of Hamma shortly after then president Hafez Assad's security forces seized control there. Dietl was able to get horrifying testimonies about the massacre perpetrated by the security forces in the wake of an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. He also went back and forth in Lebanon while it was riven by civil war, in order to interview Yasser Arafat and meet with American and German hostages that were held by Hezbollah.
Dietl also frequently visited Afghanistan, reporting on the guerrilla war being waged by Islamic insurgents against the Soviet occupation army. His private album contains many photographs from those tumultuous days. He is seen in the company of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Mujahideen commander and ally of the CIA, who years later became prime minister of Afghanistan and then an ally of the Taliban, and is now wanted by the United States. Another photo shows him riding a donkey and holding a Kalashnikov rifle, and in yet another he is seen interviewing captive Russian soldiers.
In the 1980s, his knowledge and experience of the war in Afghanistan led to a book entitled "Holy War" in English. Dietl thus became one of the first experts anywhere to identify the dangers lurking in Islamic fundamentalism. However, the only ones who paid attention to him were officials of the BND: They suggested that he work for them.
The BND was established at the initiative of a general, Reinhard Gehlen, an intelligence officer who served the Nazi regime faithfully and was responsible for running spy networks in Eastern Europe and, particularly, in the Soviet Union. After the war, the Americans decided to utilize his skills and his services. Gehlen brought with him in the service of the United States and the West his web of agents in Eastern Europe. Following the creation of West Germany, Gehlen and his staff became the infrastructure on which the BND was founded. Gehlen headed the organization until 1968. During his tenure the relations between the BND and the Mossad were consolidated, and ever since then, the BND has been the friendliest intelligence organization to Israel.
Dietl's first contact with the BND came at his initiative, as part of his journalistic work. He asked to meet with the BND spokesman. "This was in the era in which the BND was a top-secret organization," he notes. "The public didn't really know about it, and journalists, too, had hardly any contact with it. I asked the spokesman to meet with me for a background briefing, in order to get information about Afghanistan. My request was quite unusual. The spokesman agreed."
The meeting took place in 1982 in the lobby of the hotel in the Munich suburb of Pullach, where the BND's headquarters were located. Shortly afterward, Dietl got a call from the spokesman, who said something alone the lines of, "I have friends who would like to meet with you."
"They suggested that I work for them," he says. "Their proposal was that I go on being a journalist and at the same time report to them." Dietl accepted the offer and his life changed radically. He was given the code name "Dali" and his liaisons were members of the BND's Middle East department.
Did you not have any doubts?
"Of course I did. I hesitated, but in the end decided to agree, thinking that in this way I would serve my country."
This new shadowy world was very alluring to him. In one of his books he quotes a remark made by the Robert De Niro character in "The Good Shepherd" - De Niro's film about the birth of the CIA - who is smitten by the magic of a world where things hidden from the eye take place.
As is customary in the espionage world, Dietl was given test missions. He was asked to draw up a report on Ahmed Ben Bella, the deposed president of Algeria, who was living in exile in Paris, and on the headquarters of the PLO, which was set up in Tunis after the organization's expulsion from Lebanon. "I wrote reports of about 10 pages for each mission, and in return received my first payment as a spy."
How much did you get?
"I don't remember any longer exactly. Something like 1,000 marks per report, plus expenses."
That sounds like a pretty good arrangement.
"Absolutely. I lived quite well. First-class flights, expensive hotels, good meals. In addition to my salary, I was reimbursed for expenses in exchange for receipts."
Dietl relates that during his years as a spy he had three handlers: "The trust they placed in me was unlimited, and likewise the money."
How much money did you receive all told?
"I worked for the BND for 11 years, from 1982 until 1993, and I think that overall I received 600,000 marks. A third was salary and two-thirds reimbursements for expenses."
He resigned from the magazine Quick and became a freelance journalist, though gradually spying became his main occupation. "My work as a journalist was an excellent cover, as it gave me access to information and people." Among his acquaintances were the Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, and Louis Fares, a Syrian journalist and a confidant of president Assad, who sent him to carry out various clandestine missions in France.
"I obtained a great deal of secret material," Dietl says. "I remember that one day the foreign minister of Iran, Ali Velayati, came to Damascus. My sources in Syria gave me information and documents about his visit. I had to find a way to get the material to Germany. After much thought and contemplation, I developed a method to send the documents via diplomatic mail."
German diplomatic mail?
"Absolutely not. That would have been too obvious and would have made me suspect. I became friends with an employee of an East Asian embassy. I bribed him so he would send my material in his country's diplomatic mail to Germany. It worked very well for years. In this way I sent a great deal of material to headquarters in Germany, including information about Syrian arms purchases from the Soviet Union."
For another operation, he collected information from agents and sources that he cultivated in Lebanon, who were close to Hezbollah. They gave him information about hostages who were held in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Willy Dietl credits the crowning glory of his achievements to his running of two intelligence officers from a country that borders on Israel. He declines to name the country, because the two are still in active service. Dietl met a relative of the two, who was arrested in the country in question after he was falsely informed on. After the man's release, he moved to Germany, where Dietl helped him start life anew and became friends with him. His two relatives, the intelligence officers, were very impressed by Dietl's efforts and grateful to him.
"Over time I became friends with the two of them," he relates. "Only afterward did I discover that they were professional intelligence officers, who were in charge of collecting information and monitoring the activity of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization. After a while I recruited them for the BND. They gave me a complete list of Abu Nidal's operatives, their passport numbers, their code names, their travel plans to Europe and many other details. It was a gold mine. You have to remember that in the 1980s, Abu Nidal's organization was considered the most dangerous and most daring terrorist group in the world. They carried out many attacks against targets in Austria and Italy, against Israeli and Jewish targets and against the PLO. Now, suddenly, we had advance information about every trip of the organization's people to Europe."
Do you know whether the BND shared this information with other espionage organizations, including the Mossad?
"I don't know, but I have no doubt that they did. The Mossad is one of the closest organizations to the BND, and Israel was one of the targets for attacks by the Abu Nidal group."
Did the intelligence officers know that you, too, were an intelligence man?
"No. They truly believed I was a journalist. But after a time they understood that I was working for the BND, and they didn't care. They asked for $50,000. I sent the request to the BND, and after a while, when they had the chance, they went to Germany under the guise of a family visit and I set up a meeting for them with senior BND officials, who also paid them for their information and services."
But it was precisely the recruitment of these two agents, which Dietl views as his greatest accomplishment, that led to the severance of his ties with the BND. "The two were select agents, who supplied information of the first order," he says. "At one stage, representatives of a different BND department - a counterterrorist unit - entered the picture. They insisted that they be given responsibility for running the officers. The two agents - the intelligence officers - refused. They wanted to stay in contact with me. But bureaucratic stupidity won out. The decision was that they would be transferred to the unit that deals with the struggle against terrorism. That made me angry, and in the end, after 11 years, my relations with the BND ended."
Dietl adds that the difficulties involved in clandestine work helped him decide to leave: "I wanted to go on being in this world of mystery, but another voice told me it was enough. My nerves were frayed. I always operated by myself, a lone wolf. Life on the edge in Tehran, Amman or Damascus affected my health, so leaving was also a relief."
'No need to apologize'
Since slamming the door on the BND at the end of 1992, Dietl kept his secret to himself, despite the great temptation to publish his memoirs as a spy. "When I started to work for them, I undertook never to talk about it, and I upheld that commitment." He even kept the secret from an old friend, the former journalist David "Dudu" Halevy, who worked for Time magazine and other media outlets.
"I was surprised when the affair broke and it turned out that Willy was a full-fledged intelligence man, who received a salary and expenses. At most, I thought he was only a helper," says Halevy, adding that the disclosure did not affect his attitude toward Dietl.
"From the viewpoint of a journalist who covered and rubbed elbows with espionage agencies, a journalist is always into trading - give me and take from me," Halevy says. "The boundary between journalism and espionage is very blurred, and it's almost impossible to define when you are engaged in one or in the other, so that a journalist who works for an espionage service does not surprise me. The fact that Willy was a journalist and had journalistic skills and experience aided his ability as an intelligence man. It's the ability to cross borders, to wander about in the world and obtain legitimacy to collect information and recruit people. Journalists can approach sources without arousing suspicion. A journalist can pay for information and it looks natural."
What does Dietl think about the possible implications of his spying for the security of journalists in regions of conflict? "Today, in many areas of tension in the world, the belligerent sides are suspicious of journalists," he says. "It was different in my time. Times have changed. The reason is that nowadays espionage organizations send their people out in the guise of journalists: They are amateur spies posturing as journalists. I was a real journalist. The problem lies in the 'dosage.' In my time there were very few journalists who operated as I did, so there was less danger, both for us and in terms of not endangering other journalists. I am proud of what I did. I acted out of a belief in values and ideals. By my actions I exposed dangerous terrorists, thwarted their operations and saved human lives. I have no need to apologize."
After leaving the BND, Dietl continued to work as a journalist and wrote a number of books, including one about the Adolf Eichmann abduction, together with a former Mossad and Shin Bet security service man, Zvi Aharoni, who was part of the operational team that snatched the Nazi war criminal in Buenos Aires. The book, called "Operation Eichmann" in English, was published in 1996.
In some of his articles in the press Dietl was critical of his former employers in the BND, but his real troubles began three years ago, when he and a former BND officer, Norbert Juretzko, published a book about the organization. In his clandestine work, Juretzko had utilized many senior sources, particularly Russian army officers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Everything was for sale then in Russia - arms, documents - and Juretzko was very successful in his work," Dietl explains. In backrooms, but not in public, Juretzko also maintained that his most senior handlers were traitors and had worked for the Soviet KGB in return for payment. The BND set up a secret commission of inquiry, which not only rebuffed his allegations but accused him of disseminating false information, fabricating intelligence reports, extracting money fraudulently and falsely accusing his colleagues. Juretzko was tried behind closed doors, found guilty of some of the offenses and given an 11-month suspended sentence. Juretzko's response was the book he co-authored with Dietl about the affair.
Dietl maintains that the BND tried to prevent the book's publication by various means. Its agents broke into the publisher's offices and stole the manuscript. Emissaries approached Dietl and Juretzko with threats and tempting offers in an effort to dissuade them from publishing the book. Dietl is convinced that the BND - which he felt was incapable of forgiving him for joining forces with Juretzko and for his critical articles - decided to take revenge on him, and thus his name was added to the list of journalists who spied on their colleagues in the service of the BND.
Willy Dietl's own response-revenge was not long in coming. Last month he published his memoirs in German, entitled "Code Name Dali: The BND Agent Reports" - and filed a complaint with the justice ministry against BND chief August Hanning and his successor Ernst Uhrlau, for disclosure of state secrets: revealing his name as a former employee of the organization. Dietl, who denies outright the accusation that he spied on journalists, has also filed libel suits against Der Spiegel and other media outlets that published the BND claims and tarnished his reputation.
"I will continue to fight with all my might and with all the means at my disposal to clear my name," he declares at the end of the interview. "In Germany, in contrast to Israel, the public does not want to understand that intelligence work is necessary to protect the country's citizens and its democratic character. In Germany, the moment your name is mixed up in anything related to intelligence, you are considered odious, so you can imagine how badly the affair has hurt me." W
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now