This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Damn – they've seen me. I quickly roll through the wet foliage to my left and crouch behind a tree, but it's too late. Two men in uniform emerge from the gates of the government building in Cologne, western Germany, that houses the Federal Office for the Protection of the German Constitution (BfV) – Germany's domestic intelligence agency – and they're headed in my direction.
I have just enough time to conceal the binoculars I've been using to monitor the spy house. Still, I have a bigger problem: I'm dressed head-to-toe in camo and wearing a poncho covered in leaves and old cigarette boxes. I can only hope that they don't open fire on sight. But honestly, who could blame them if they did.
"What are you doing?" barks one of them, before they've even reached me.
That's a very good question.
The easy answer, which is also the answer I can't give them, is that I'm here to spy on Germany's main spy agency, because it's time someone took a closer look at what they’re all up to.
The slightly longer answer is that Hans-Georg Maaßen – who was, up until late last year, president of the domestic security agency – recently gave a speech in which he falsely claimed that actual video of neo-Nazis assaulting anyone they thought looked foreign was all faked. As a consequence of his rant, Maaßen was forced into retirement. This whole thing had many people thinking that if the country's top spy could think this way, then what does that mean for how the entire institution operates?
There was only one way to find out: to spy on the spies and discover what really goes on inside.
Of course, you can't just go and spy on a bunch of spies without some preparation. First, I have to become intimately familiar with my target. I head to Berlin's Humboldt University's library in search of material that will offer a more comprehensive understanding of BfV's history.
The most interesting thing I find is that when the department was created in the 1950s, 13 percent of those employed had some link to the Nazis – which, to be fair, was well below average at the time. About a third of those employed in other government agencies straight after the war had a Nazi past.
With my now-comprehensive grasp of the organisation's history, it's time to acquire the practical skills needed for the job. In order to learn how to spy on real life intelligence agents without getting caught, I'll need the help of a professional.
Christian has worked as a private detective for the last ten years. Before that, the 49-year-old was an undercover police detective, and he's promised to show me the ropes. That's why I'm sitting in his black Audi on a Berlin street corner. "The most important thing is never to be recognised," Christian explains as we wait. "You can be seen, but you should never be remembered."
I ask Christian if he thinks I can get away with spying on professional spies. "Firstly, they don't expect anyone to be on to them," he says. "But I think this occupation gives you a different perspective on the world around you. For example, I always scan the area and the people around me wherever I go."
That's why it's particularly important to mix into your environment. "I can be a tourist or just a man out walking his dog," he explains. "Fit into your surroundings – that's pretty much everything." Having a good "legend" is almost as important. "You always have to know who you're supposed to be. You always need to be able to answer the questions: 'Who are you and what are you doing right now?'"
We then get into the practical advice – for example, the right distance to keep when you're tailing someone on foot. "You need to get close enough to be able to catch everything, but far enough away to avoid getting caught," explains Christian. "Fifty metres or so, I'd say. If he turns the corner, you better hustle."
And one more thing: "It's important to remember that people are at their most observant when they are leaving their homes," says the detective. "People look around to make sure everything is normal and in order. That's why you should never be too close to someone's front door."
Early the next morning, I run through my plan one more time. Excellently camouflaged, I'll watch the headquarters – from afar, initially – to find out what actually goes on in there all day long. Next, I'll change out of the camouflage and try to tail employees on foot when they leave to grab some lunch – ideally eavesdropping on them as they eat.
I ordered a professional sniper's camo suit for the first part of my plan, but it hasn't arrived on time, so I have to improvise. This actually turns out to be a blessing, as it allows me to be smarter by integrating elements of the local environment – foliage, cigarette packages – into my camouflage, just as Christian recommended, sort of.
A little while later, I'm at my post, from which I have a perfect view of the front gate. Hundreds of people work in this impressively hideous complex – spying on extremists, hackers and, presumably, whoever else they want to spy on.
My first objective is to observe who goes in and out of the building. Unfortunately, in less than five minutes, two guards walk out and approach me. They must be equipped with exceptionally powerful reconnaissance technology, as I should have been impossible to detect with the human eye.
Fleeing is not an option – I'm too exposed. There's nothing left for me to do but wait. I run through my legend one more time. As a hobbyist ornithologist, I want to watch the swarming of the starling swarm, which will pass by this exact spot today. I wasn't even aware that there are federal government offices in the area. My plan is watertight.
"I'm a journalist!" I immediately spit out as soon as they're standing in front of me. "I'm a journalist and I'm writing a story about the history of Germany's domestic intelligence agency. I believe I'm allowed to do so." The older, friendlier of the two, looks at me with a touch of pity and shakes his head. The younger officer, with a full beard and neck tattoos, stares at me as if he's calculating just how long he'd have to taser me before my heart exploded.
Luckily, the older one is in charge. "Go on then, but be careful not to take any photos of the cars, alright?" Both turn around and trudge their way back through the gates.
My cover is blown. It's time to move to the second phase of my operation.
I change my clothes in a nearby bakery and take my next position at the bus stop across from the building. I start meticulously taking notes; 12:29PM: Mercedes SUV, dark grey, tinted windows, drives out; 12:30PM: Black truck, event-catering, drives up to gate.
My findings: domestic security agents prefer to drive station wagons or SUVs, usually in grey or dark grey. Approximately the same number of agents turn to the right as to the left, and no one enters on foot.
Here, I encounter a problem: tailing people on foot won't work, as anyone who leaves the office at lunch will drive.
I take a seat in the local bakery at 1:30PM to practice spying, hoping to overhear the conversations of unsuspecting agents as they enjoy their coffee and cake. It feels tragic that I'm wasting my perfect camouflage and technique. The only thing lacking is someone to spy on.
Afterwards, I return to my post, and after 30 minutes realise that there's still no one to spy on. The observation stage is over; it's time to move on to the next and final phase.
I'm back in Berlin because the BfV has set up a booth at a job fair at the Berlin Technical University: the perfect opportunity to observe and interrogate agents out in the wild. Of course, the necessary camouflage is required to blend into this environment, so I dress up as a student.
Feeling well equipped, I enter the university atrium and find a woman from the BfV having a conversation with a young woman wearing a headscarf and her companion. After a few minutes they finish up and I approach them in an attempt to gather some "human intelligence".
I follow them inconspicuously until we're in the stairwell and out of the agent's sight. I approach them and ask what they talked about. "I asked if I can work there wearing a headscarf," 18-year-old Hatice explains. "They said it wasn't ideal, because you should be free and not show any influence." She didn't seem to find this statement particularly terrible. "I want to do something for my country," Hatice continues. "And regardless of whether it's right-wing extremists or Salafists, we must keep an eye on those who work against us."
Her 19-year-old fiancé is at her side, nodding eagerly. I'm beginning to suspect that I've just fallen for two decoys of the agency's PR department. What kind of 18-year-olds talk like that? I give them both a suspicious look and leave.
I return to find the booth busy. I leaf through some of the material on offer until it's my turn for a chat. The young man running the stand smiles at me; he's wearing a sports jacket but no tie. My legend for today: I'm a 26-year-old Politics student thinking about applying to the BfV. "Twenty-six..?" the man says, looking at me doubtfully.
He then tells me a bit about what the national cyber defence division is working on, which is basically hunting down Chinese hackers, warning German companies against Chinese hackers and reminding government officials not to click on weird links in emails.
I try to throw him with my next question about whether my right-wing views are a problem. I make it clear that I'm not a member of AfD or anything, but I agree with some of what they do. Is that such a bad thing? He hesitates for a moment. "Well, there is no such thing as a personal politics test," he eventually says. "But of course, we take security measures to vet everyone and to ensure they're not extremists."
He tries to put my mind at ease by offering some advice: "There is also the option of civil service; you'll find a lot of very conservative people working there." But where he works – in cyber defence – usually attracts lots of young people, he tells me. When I bring up Maaßen and his views, it's obvious he doesn't want to talk about, though he does tell me that the former spy chief was "ambitious and single-minded – he always knew exactly what he wanted", and that his departure didn't have a massive impact on the agency's day-to-day operations: "Three-thousand people working there, and our work just continues as usual."
Our conversation lasts nearly ten minutes and then he gives me a lanyard, recommends that I regularly check the website for jobs and turns to speak with the next interested party. Success: my cover hasn't been blown.
Afterwards, I stay and keep an eye on the booth for a while, where there's still quite a lot of activity – which makes these students come across as a bit sinister; a bit too keen on working for a spy agency.
I want to find out if this lot are approaching this entire thing with enough of a critical eye. Again, I spy-ishly follow two students until we are far enough away so we can chat discreetly. They two young women tell me they are both from Turkish immigrant backgrounds and find the BfV's work extremely exciting, partly "because it's such a secure job".
The fact that this department has failed to notice that a neo-Nazi cell has allegedly been systematically murdering people of Turkish descent for the last 13 years doesn't worry them too much. "It's difficult, because there were people who may have covered that up," says one, Pinar. "But the man at the stand told us just now that there are a lot of young people coming in and the atmosphere is changing. I think lots of the problems the agency have had in recent years is related to the fact that the people there are so old. Thank god they'll retire soon!" she laughs.
The girls move on to check out some more stands, and for the rest of the day I consider Pinar's comment, which gets me thinking that maybe she's right. With Maaßen retired, perhaps a new culture is on its way in. His successor, Thomas Haldenwang, has suggested that he wants to take right-wing extremism even more seriously.
Whatever happens next, I'll be using my news skills to keep an eye on him.