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Insider: The Osthoff Affair Volume 59 Number 2, March/April 2006

When archaeologist Susanne Osthoff was kidnapped in late November of last year, just a few days after Angela Merkel was elected chancellor, the press dubbed her the German leader's "first foreign-policy crisis."

Osthoff's reception among fellow Germans since her release on December 19 has been chilly. Although Berlin has been mum on the issue of a ransom, Osthoff acknowledged that there was a payment to her kidnappers; news reports estimate it to be around $5 million. The tabloids, noting the fact that she professed having no interest in returning to Germany, ran headlines such as "Osthoff: How Much Did We Pay For Her?" Eyebrows were raised when Mohammed Ali Hamadi, serving a life sentence for the murder of a U.S. Navy diver in 1985, was released from a German prison four days after Osthoff's release (the German government has denied any connection between the two events).

The media slammed her first German television interview, in which she appeared in a traditional Muslim veil that revealed only her eyes--to protect her identity, according to the interviewer. (One magazine derisively described her as "a cross between a ninja and a Chechen black widow.") In an effort to silence her critics, Osthoff sat down for an 11-hour interview with Stern magazine that ran with the unfortunate heading "I Think the Germans Hate Me."

This was all very different from the praise Osthoff has received from the archaeological community. She has been characterized as an intrepid and tireless caretaker of a ravaged cultural landscape, one of the few foreign archaeologists who chose to remain in Iraq to raise awareness of the devastation wrought by the war (see "Archaeologist Held Hostage").

In early January, German newspapers Die Welt and Süddeutsche Zeitung, citing sources in "well-informed circles," reported that Osthoff on occasion supplied information to the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND) regarding the situation in Iraq. The cooperation was allegedly halted by the BND in May 2005 after Osthoff received a threat from Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. The reports estimated the archaeologist to have received no more than $4,000 from the BND.

Osthoff is currently believed to be in Jordan. In interviews to the German press she denied giving any intelligence to the BND, but acknowledged contact and overnight stays with a BND agent who helped her "genuinely much" and who provided toys for her daughter. According to Osthoff, the agent's superior attempted to recruit her for intelligence gathering, but she rebuffed his offer.

A few days after the first accusations appeared against Osthoff, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published an explosive report claiming that, despite Berlin's official anti-war stance, BND agents helped the U.S. select targets during the 2002 air invasion of Iraq. The German public was outraged, and this new political scandal guaranteed that continued media speculation about the unsympathetic character of Susanne Osthoff and her alleged connections to German intelligence, the sizeable ransom, and coincidental release of Hamadi wouldn't go away anytime soon.

This leaves the international archaeological community, many of whom petitioned tirelessly for Osthoff's release, asking the question: How does this affect us?

"My first concern is to get this story right and figure out what we know, because there are serious consequences when this gets broadcast all over the areas where we do research that archaeologists are spies," said David Price, an anthropologist at St. Martin's College who is writing a book on archaeologist-spies in WWII.

McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, brushed aside the concern of a backlash against archaeologists in the region as a result of the spying allegations made against Osthoff. "We're always under scrutiny anyway. But it's not the archaeologists who are spying, it's the better-paid professionals--the businessmen and god knows who else."

According to Gibson, who spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY in a telephone interview from his office at the university's Oriental Institute, even if there were a backlash, he couldn't see how the situation in Iraq could get any worse, citing the continued daily destruction of archaeological sites in the country. "The market is flooded with Iraqi antiquities, especially in Germany and Switzerland and other places in Europe," Gibson added, sounding frustrated. "And no one's doing a damn thing about it. [These allegations are] just another piece of a bad situation."

As the war continues to rage and the Germans try to sort out their role in it, and as Susanne Osthoff tries to find her home somewhere between Germany and Iraq as the sites she loved so much continue to disappear, her colleague Michael Müller-Karpe pointed out that something very positive has indeed resulted from this messy affair. "Only through the abduction of an archaeologist who had tirelessly denounced the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq by looters did a great majority of the German population became aware of the infamous role their country plays in the trade in stolen cultural goods," he wrote in an email message from his office at the Roümisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz. As a result, the German government is now considering the ratification of the 1970 UNESCO convention, which will close the country's borders to objects from illegal excavations.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America