This article was originally published on January 9, 2017, and republished without changes in February 2018.
Last spring, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière traveled to Washington to meet with the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agency that was set up in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He came away impressed with the idea of putting security under one roof.
At the start of this year, just weeks after the Berlin Christmas market attack that killed 12 people, he put those thoughts into practice. Mr. de Maizière last week presented his own idea of overhauling Germany’s security apparatus and centralizing intelligence operations in the fight against terrorism.
The United States is clearly the role model: He wishes nothing less than a German Department of Homeland Security.
Mr. de Maiziére wants the federal government essentially to take control of domestic intelligence and have greater powers to deport asylum-seekers suspected of posing a security threat. He also wants to give the federal police more responsibilities, including authority to investigate unauthorized residents in Germany.
Reaction to his radical proposal has been immediate and mostly critical, not only from the states but across party lines as well.
We don’t need a German FBI. Gerhart Baum, Former interior minister
Horst Seehofer, the leader of conservative Christian Social Union, the smaller Bavarian sister party in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition government, said the Bavarian state intelligence agency would never be abolished.
Gerhart Baum, a former interior minister, warned of a move toward greater centralization. “The government today already has key controlling competencies,” he said. “We don’t need a German FBI.”
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, head of the center-left Social Democrats, also rejected the idea of a fresh debate on the reorganization of power structures, saying it would take up time and resources badly needed to focus on the more immediate effort to fight terrorism. Any distraction from this fight, he argued, would make the country more vulnerable.
Back in the United States, the idea of a federally run anti-terror agency generated plenty of debate over the pros and cons too. But ultimately the shock of September 11 tipped the scale in favor of establishing a centralized authority.
A similar debate has now followed in Germany after the December 19 truck terrorist attack at a Berlin Christmas market, where 12 people were killed and dozens more seriously injured. But the outcome remains uncertain.
German federalism is undisputed – it’s a far-sighted response to the centralized, criminal dictatorship of Adolf Hiltler. The 70-year-old federal structures in Germany, like those in the United States, distribute power between federal government in Berlin and 16 federal states.
But this system of government has been shown to have weaknesses, especially in the area of security.
Criminal investigators have no access to the investigative data of the other federal states and are often fumbling in the dark with their own investigations. André Schulz, Chairman, Federation of German Police Officers
Germany has no clear rules for monitoring people considered to be a potential threat. Anis Amri, the Christmas market attacker, slipped by authorities under 14 different aliases. Some have called for political consequences.
But it wasn't the first time problems were found. A special investigation of an anti-terror operation in Bremen in 2015 reveal numerous slipups by intelligence officials, caused in large part by a lack of communications across states and departments.
German police still rely on an antiquated analog communications system because states continue to wrangle over the costs of introducing a more advanced digital solution.
The 16 states also operate 16 incompatible IT systems to process cases. German states finally announced the introduction of a unified system for processing cases in November 2016, but they don’t expect to have it up and running until early 2019.
“Criminal investigators have no access to the investigative data of the other federal states and are often fumbling in the dark with their own investigations,” said André Schulz, chairman of the Federation of German Police Officers.
Germany’s history of abused surveillance under the Nazis and former East Germany’s Stasi secret police has left the nation generally wary of data collection and public cameras. And many citizens and policymakers remain weary even after more than 1,000 women reported being attacked in Cologne and elsewhere by gangs of mostly immigrant men – many of North African origin who had arrived as refugees.
“Federalism is reaching its limits in combating complex challenges like international terrorism and organized crime,” said Gerhard Schick, a member of parliament with the Green Party.
So Mr. de Maizière faces an uphill battle with his proposal. It will require changes to the constitution, which, in turn, will need the backing of the states. Yet he has some powerful supporters, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s intelligence office, the Bundesamt für Verfassungschutz.
And with the threat of terrorism on the rise, he has the momentum.
Christian Schlesiger and Gregor Peter Schmitz are editors with the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication. John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]