ANTI-TERROR MEASURES What It Means to Have a Strong State

Terror is being misused in debates ahead of this year’s German election campaign, argues Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former German justice minister.
Quelle: dpa
The Berlin Christmas Market attack took place in December.
(Source: dpa)

In situations like the aftermath of the attack on Berlin’s Christmas market, we hope for one thing above all: to keep a level head. We might also hope that members of Germany’s ruling coalition would analyze the weaknesses of Germany’s security architecture in a sober, well-coordinated and constructive way, and then draw appropriate conclusions.

Instead, both federal interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, have immediately shifted into electioneering mode. Mr. de Maizière is a member of Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, while Mr. Gabriel leads the center-left Social Democrats. The two parties cooperate in government but will compete against one another in this year’s election.

The interior minister wants to greatly extend the powers of the federal criminal police, while abolishing the various domestic intelligence agencies —known as the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution — which operate both at state and federal levels. For his part, Mr. Gabriel blathers on about a “fundamental right to security.”

These security proposals, early in an election year, are a transparent exercise in political maneuvering.

These proposals, early in an election year, are a transparent exercise in political maneuvering. Shortcomings in domestic intelligence have been well-known at least since a far-right terror cell, responsible for numerous murders, was discovered in 2011. Before the last federal elections, a government commission was created to investigate Germany’s legal framework for security questions. This body issued a comprehensive report in August 2013: among other things, it recommended a merger of state intelligence agencies, the strengthening of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and the abolition of the military counterintelligence service.

Instead of taking into account these nuanced, objective proposals, drawn up by experts, the interior minister is now proposing a wholesale transfer of powers to the federal level. It is clearly unnecessary to have 16 different regional agencies individually defending the democratic order.

But detailed local knowledge is often the basis on which the authorities identify enemies of the state early on. What would be more appropriate now would be to merge the state intelligence agencies into four powerful new bodies, covering North, South, East, and West. The legal basis for this was already created in 2015.

A major failing in all this is Mr. de Maizière’s complete lack of accountability with regard to his proposed measures. The terrorist who carried out the attack in Berlin last month was well known to the authorities. He had been identified as a “potential attacker” by the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre, or GTAZ, the coordinating committee of all Germany’s security agencies. The federal interior ministry, headed by Mr. de Maizière, is represented on this committee, as well as the domestic intelligence agencies of all 16 states.

Why was this person, known to be a potential danger, not taken into pre-deportation custody? The law currently allows individuals who are judged dangerous and facing deportation to be held in custody for up to 18 months.

Rather than demanding ever greater powers — like data retention and video surveillance — without good reason, powers which will impact the population as a whole, Mr. de Maizière should use existing laws. These are designed specifically to be used against genuinely dangerous people.

What is missing here is any clear legal demarcation of competencies within the GTAZ. It is in precisely this area that the minister should be looking to pass new laws: he should give up his ongoing resistance to this. It remains unclear which of the authorities represented on GTAZ has ultimate responsibility for persons suspected of terrorist intent; the political responsibility in this area also remains confused.

So where does political responsibility lie in the case of the terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas market? The interior minister must answer this crucial question.

It is all the more remarkable that Mr. de Maizière has again demanded an expansion of the powers of the federal criminal police, or BKA, while completely ignoring the German Constitutional Court’s important judgment of April 2016. The minister has not even implemented the court’s orders, but instead is again calling for new powers.

In that judgment, the constitutional court reduced powers like residential surveillance and online searches to a level in keeping with the constitution. Why are these existing, highly specific anti-terrorist powers not adequate? They already allow the state to thoroughly investigate a suspect’s private sphere.

A truly strong state does not put all of its citizens under general suspicion: it respects their rights, while defending them in crisis situations.

No, what Mr. de Maizière calls his “Guidelines for a Strong State in Difficult Times” are actually not guidelines for a strong state. They are guidelines for a voracious state machine, which since September 11, 2001 has gradually lost all sense of proportion.

A strong state, on which citizens could actually rely, is a state which is strong in its core responsibilities: like law enforcement on security questions. Otherwise, it leaves its citizens alone, while never leaving them in the lurch.

This kind of strong state concentrates on individuals who are genuinely dangerous, and acts preventively against radicalization. But a state like this does not put all of its citizens under general suspicion: it respects their rights, while defending them in crisis situations.


Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is a politician with the pro-business Free Democratic Party. She was federal minister for justice from 1992 to 1996, and again between 2009 and 2013. To contact the author:

Zur Startseite