The bell rang three times early on a cold Friday morning before a sleepy Hans-Martin Tillack, an investigative reporter for the German newsweekly Stern, answered the door in his T-shirt and boxers. Six Belgian policemen politely filed in, he recalled, handed him a search warrant and went to work.

For the next 10 hours, they combed through his apartment and his separate office, seizing his computer hard drives, his bank records, his Filofax organizer, four cell phones, 18 boxes of files and a copy of "Spaceship Brussels," his expose of fraud and waste inside the European Union. When Tillack complained, he recalled, one of the officers shrugged. In Burma, the policeman told him, "journalists get treated much worse."

The police were looking for evidence that Tillack had bribed an E.U. official to obtain a confidential memo from the union's anti-fraud unit, known by its French acronym OLAF. But what they were really doing that March morning, he and other critics allege, was retaliating against a reporter whose stories had embarrassed the E.U. by focusing public attention on corruption and secrecy.

"They think it's more important to find out the leakers than to protect freedom of the press," said Tillack, who says the bribery allegation is false and absurd.

The anti-fraud unit contends that it was pursuing only a bribery allegation made by a former official. Once the unit determined that the allegation was credible, officials said, it had no choice but to turn the matter over to police. "There was some evidence that money had been paid, and this meant the matter had a different importance and gravity from a criminal law point of view," said Joerg Wojahn, a spokesman for the unit.

Critics contend that Tillack's case is an indictment of the anonymous, unelected bureaucracy that rules Europe from Brussels. It's a cozy network, they claim, presided over by directors general who frequently operate like feudal lords.

In their view, these mandarins issue an endless stream of rules and regulations that are often opaque and unintelligible to all but the savviest insiders, while the elected parliament that is supposed to oversee them is weak and ineffective by comparison. Loyalty is prized, critics argue, and accountability is minimal.

People such as Tillack, who make too many waves, can find themselves on the receiving end of the commission's wrath. In 1999, Paul van Buitenen, a commission accountant from the Netherlands, was suspended on half-pay for going outside official channels after he took allegations of fraud to members of the European Parliament. Marta Andreasen was demoted from her post as the commission's chief auditor after publicly challenging its accounts two years ago. And Dorte Schmidt-Brown, a Danish official, stepped down from her post with Eurostat, the commission's powerful statistics agency, alleging that she had been harassed by an outside consulting company after she questioned its contracts with the commission.

In each case, commission officials have said the people involved failed to follow procedures for whistle-blowers and therefore were subject to internal discipline.

The European Parliament itself has come under fire for a reimbursement system that provides deputies with chauffeured cars, free health care, staff jobs for family members and travel allowances that can pay up to 10 times the actual airfare.

"Europe as a whole is not a democracy, but a bureaucracy," said van Buitenen, who no longer works for the commission and was recently elected to the European Parliament on a reform platform. "The instruments of democratic control are simply not developed enough to be effective."

No wonder, say the critics, that many Europeans feel alienated from the institutions that oversee their lives and work. Voter turnout fell below 30 percent in some areas during parliamentary elections in June, and a large contingent of E.U. skeptics -- including a handful of lawmakers who have pledged to abolish the union altogether -- won seats.

Bribery Allegations

Hans-Martin Tillack, 42, came to Brussels in 1998, at a time of crisis for the European Commission -- the group of 20 commissioners, appointed by their home countries, that oversees the E.U.'s 24,000 civil servants and $100 billion annual budget. The commission is the executive arm of the E.U., carrying out policies and laws decided on by the European Parliament and representatives of E.U. member governments.

Van Buitenen's allegations of wrongdoing had recently become public, disclosing a pattern of cronyism epitomized by commissioner Edith Cresson of France, who had appointed her dentist to a high-paying E.U. post.

Cresson and the other members of the commission were forced to resign en masse in 1999 -- an unprecedented step in its 45-year history -- and a new group was installed, pledging zero tolerance for corrupt practices. Neil Kinnock, the former head of Britain's Labor Party, was appointed vice president for administrative reform, with a mandate to set up new codes and procedures to prevent a repetition of the scandal. One of his creations was OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, which was given extraordinary powers to investigate corruption.

From the start, however, critics saw problems with the changes. Andreasen complained publicly about irregularities in the E.U.'s new accounting system, and she was suspended for a time. Van Buitenen raised new concerns. Both have since resigned.

Many of the concerns centered on Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency. Because it monitors compliance with the union's complex financial regulations and its data determine which regions qualify for special aid programs, Eurostat wields enormous power. But van Buitenen raised questions about the agency's financial relationships with private-sector firms and where some of its revenue had gone.

Tillack wrote brash and bold pieces, based on leaked documents and complaints from unhappy bureaucrats. "He was one of the few to continue to write critical stories," van Buitenen said. "He was very well informed."

His toughest piece appeared in February 2002, when he published details of a 46-page confidential OLAF memo assessing van Buitenen's latest allegations against Eurostat. Tillack refuses to say where he got the memo. One month later, OLAF issued a statement announcing that it was investigating a claim that Tillack had bribed an E.U. official to obtain the report.

Later, it emerged that the source of the allegation was Joachim Gross, a former Stern journalist and press spokesman for the European budget commissioner, Michaele Schreyer, whose office oversees OLAF. According to an account in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which OLAF officials confirmed, Gross had mentioned to the agency's spokesman that he had heard Tillack might have paid 8,000 euros (currently about $9,800) or German marks (about $5,000) for the document. Gross told investigators he had gotten his information from a Stern staff member.

When contacted, Gross refused to comment on the investigation. The Stern colleague did not return phone calls seeking comment, but according to the newspaper, he has said he has not spoken to Gross for years.

Still, OLAF decided to turn its file over to police in Brussels and Hamburg, where Stern is based. The German authorities decided the information was too skimpy to warrant investigation. But police in Belgium, which has no shield law protecting journalists or their sources, decided to act.

OLAF official Wojahn denies that his agency is out to get Tillack. "We're not interested in Mr. Tillack as such," he said. "We're interested in the person who gave the confidential documents to him."

Police Action Criticized

The police raid caused an immediate furor. Officers prevented Tillack from making calls at his home or at his office at the International Press Center, to which they escorted him, but he was able to raise the alarm with a handful of his journalistic neighbors at the center. Soon the narrow doorway of his office was bristling with television cameras and microphones. The International Federation of Journalists protested the raid. Tillack later filed suit in a European court in Luxembourg, demanding the return of his files and $350,000 in damages. The case is pending.

The raid was also criticized by Raymond Kendall, chairman of the supervisory committee that oversees OLAF. He told a hearing at Britain's House of Lords in May that the agency's case against Tillack "was purely on the basis of hearsay evidence from an informant, one informant, who happened to be in one of the public relations offices of the commission. . . . Any normal person would have to say that somewhere along the line OLAF [was] probably trying to get back at" Tillack.

European magazines are not shy about paying for scoops, especially those involving the private lives of celebrities. But Tillack says Stern would never have paid for E.U. documents; the stories simply aren't sexy enough.

Kinnock said he has no direct responsibility for OLAF but says he and his fellow commissioners have helped clean up the E.U.'s act. "Reform is a process, not an event," he said in an interview. "You always want things to go faster and farther. But those who want to believe that we've got some kind of KGB here bent upon suppressing and, when that fails, penalizing whistle-blowers, are living on Mars."

Tillack is not convinced. "I'm not so sure anymore that Burma is worse than Brussels," he said.

Hans-Martin Tillack of Stern magazine said the European Union thinks "it's more important to find out the leakers than to protect freedom of the press."