Thousands of former East German Stasi agents who spied on the West during the Cold War face the prospect of being unmasked after a decision by the CIA to return a hitherto top-secret espionage document to the German government.
The revelations concern about 50,000 former Stasi agents. Their identities are contained in a massive intelligence dossier, codenamed "Rosenholz", which the CIA smuggled out of East Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Yesterday, the German government disclosed that Washington had returned all of the 380 compact discs that made up the Rosenholz file and that, 10 days ago, secrecy restrictions on the document had been lifted, allowing the names of the spies to be published.
The dossier holds the names and registration numbers of about 200,000 East and West Germans who were either Stasi targets or had worked as spies and informers betraying Western secrets to the East German regime since the 1950s. About a quarter of them spied on the West or worked as couriers for the Stasi.
Despite German requests for the return of the file during the early 1990s, Washington only started handing over the information two years ago because of fears that the document would expose double agents who worked for the Stasi and the CIA.
The file was handed to a KGB agent at East Berlin Stasi headquarters in late 1989 and subsequently landed in American hands in what was regarded as one of the CIA's most significant intelligence scoops. In 1993, information gleaned from Rosenholz led to the unmasking of Rainer Rupp, a West German who betrayed Nato secrets to the Eastern bloc.
Marianne Birthler, the head of the German government agency responsible for investigating Stasi activities, said that the information contained in the file was unlikely to lead to anyone being prosecuted because nearly all of the cases were regarded as "spent" under German law.
The Rosenholz file could embarrass Germany's main political parties. State prosecutors disclosed two years ago that about 60 Stasi agents had worked or were still working for the ruling Social Democrats and the opposition Christian Democrats.
Information leaked from the file has already thrown up the codenames of two party officials. One Social Democrat codenamed Akker is believed to have supplied internal party discussion papers to the Stasi in the early 1980s. A Christian Democrat official, codenamed Loewe, is also on record as having supplied the Stasi with party documents.
Dieter Wiefelsputz, a Social Democrat MP, said that his party would, if necessary, use the information to unmask former Stasi agents in the party who had escaped being identified. He said: "We have to face up to this issue. It is always wrong to attempt to suppress the past."Reuse content