Germans wary of security measures
Depending upon one’s political persuasion or level of anxiety, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is either a dogged defender against terrorism or a man out to strip away civil liberties by hacking into computers and bank accounts in pursuit of militants.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, governments around the world have confronted the balance between individual rights and national security, but that dilemma is particularly sensitive in this nation, where spying during the Nazi era and the Cold War left bitter memories of state interference.
Opposition lawmakers say Schaeuble, who told a German magazine recently that suspected militants should be denied the presumption of innocence, is exploiting Germans’ fear of terrorism to expand the powers of police and intelligence services. Some officials here view the debate as similar to the one in the U.S. over constitutional questions raised by the Patriot Act.
“There’s a feeling that everyone is being treated like a suspect,” said Gisela Piltz, a Free Democrat and member of Parliament. “We need to do what is effective against terrorism, but does scanning every license plate or monitoring everyone’s personal computer work?
“Unfortunately, most Germans say, ‘I don’t care, I’m afraid of terrorism, do what you need to do,’ ” she added. “They’re not thinking about the consequences of losing civil liberties.”
Schaeuble has called his critics naive. He said the government must rely on aggressive security and sophisticated eavesdropping technology to track terrorists who communicate through the Internet, not by “carrier pigeons.”
Under political pressure in recent weeks, however, the interior minister ordered his agencies to stop secretly tapping personal computers while he seeks a constitutional amendment to allow the practice.
“There is always a race between the police and the criminals,” Schaeuble, a conservative Christian Democrat who has been in a wheelchair since a 1990 assassination attempt, told the German media. “We do not want the latter to be better equipped than security forces.... The overwhelming majority of people see this the same way.”
Ute Vogt, a leader with the Social Democrats, coalition partners with Schaeuble’s party, said of him, “Anyone who questions the principle of innocent until proven guilty is the wrong person to be in charge of upholding and protecting the constitution.”
The threat of terrorism has resonated here since it was discovered that several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers lived and studied in Hamburg. Last August, suspected militants of Lebanese descent were arrested on suspicion of planting suitcase bombs that didn’t detonate on two German trains. The country is home to a number of extremist cells, including Ansar al Sunna, an Al Qaeda-backed group that several weeks ago was believed to be targeting U.S. installations here.
Though there were no specific threats reported against American interests, the German media quoted intelligence officials as saying the militant organization had increased its surveillance of U.S. facilities here. When asked about the threat, Schaeuble said the “danger level” was high. Intelligence officials also fear that Germany’s expanding military role in Afghanistan has put it in the sights of extremist groups.
Germany has passed 50 laws related to homeland security in recent years. The country issues passports with biometric security features and, along with the other members of the European Union, shares airline passenger records with U.S. intelligence agencies. In addition to seeking authority to tap into computers, Schaeuble wants to increase the database for Germans’ fingerprints. He is also urging the government to pass legislation that would allow the shooting down of hijacked commercial airliners.
In 2006, the German Constitutional Court rejected a similar law on grounds it violated the human rights of passengers. The ruling was consistent with Germany’s reputation as one of the most sensitive countries in Europe for protecting data and individual rights. This spirit was imbued in the constitution, which, written after the atrocities of the Third Reich, emphasized dignity and personal freedom over the powers of the state.
But in an editorial, the conservative Die Welt newspaper wrote that most Germans support tougher law enforcement:
“All those who claim that [Schaeuble] is putting in place elements that will lead to Orwell’s Big Brother do not see that the majority of Germans seems to want exactly this: maximum security, no matter what it costs.”
Erosion of rights
Peter Schaar, the nation’s commissioner for data protection, said since Sept. 11 there has been an erosion of individual rights. “The balance of protecting [German] citizens from terror and crime on the one hand, and protecting their freedom on the other hand is in danger of being thrown out of kilter,” he said.
Volker Beck, a member of the opposition Green Party, said he was concerned that expanded police powers might result in spying on opposition and radical groups that pose no threat to the government.
“These measures should only be fighting terrorists, not everything,” Beck said. “There are political extremists out there who are crazy, but they’re not dangerous. We don’t need to spy on them. I think all this leads to the danger of harming the liberal way we live in Western society. That’s really the aim of the terrorists.”