The head of Germany's internal security agency has drawn the consequences from a widening scandal and has asked to leave his job. But the consequences may not end with him.
After a remarkable series of missteps in investigating neo-Nazi terror cell the National Socialist Underground (NSU), the president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency resigned his post on Monday. Heinz Fromm, 63, submitted a request for early retirement at the end of this month, reported Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich.
Fromm is regarded as one of the most experienced security experts in Germany, and stood at the head of the country's intelligence agency for 12 years.
Important documents shredded
The chief reason for his resignation: a neo-Nazi terror cell that operated for more than a decade undiscovered by security authorities, which murdered 10 people, including nine of non-German heritage and a German policewoman.
Last Wednesday, reports emerged that Fromm's office, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, destroyed records after the terror group was uncovered. Those documents might have exposed how members of Fromm's office collaborated with Thüringer Heimatschutz (Thuringia Homeland Protection), a neo-Nazi group affiliated with the NSU.
By Thursday of this week, Germany's Office of the Interior will evaluate an initial report from the domestic intelligence agency on the shredded documents. Interior Minister Friedrich will then report to the German parliament.
Early tips from Italy
Aside from destroyed documents, it has now been announced that German intelligence authorities received notice of a network of right-wing terror cells as early as 2003. German daily Berliner Zeitung reports that this exchange was confirmed by a December 2011 document from Italian domestic intelligence agency AISI, addressed to Germany's intelligence authorities.
The Italian intelligence office also informed authorities in Cologne about a meeting of European neo-Nazis in the Belgian town of Waasmunster in November, 2002. Italian intelligence reports suggested that a network of militant European neo-Nazis was discussed at the meeting, and that German and Italian terrorists plotted potential attacks against businesses run by non-Europeans.
Demands for further action
The political opposition in Germany is not satisfied with the removal of Heinz Fromm from the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, calling him a pawn whose resignation does nothing to clear up the scandalous series of events. The Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party have called for a fundamental reform of Germany's intelligence offices.
Klaus Schröder, an expert on right-wing extremism with Berlin's Free University, shares their view. Schröder told DW that controls must be installed that will help make the work of intelligence authorities more transparent to both politicians and citizens. And under certain circumstances, he believes a commission should be created to confidentially evaluate the work of intelligence agencies.
Could they have acted alone?
Further, Schröder believes the NSU case demonstrates that closer cooperation between the police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is necessary.
"This cooperation did not exist with respect to the NSU. In Germany, we have reasons drawn from history for dividing up the police and the intelligence office, but that cannot be allowed to lead to a loss of cooperation," Schröder said
But he added a warning: "It is a very complicated affair. If you declare someone a left- or right-wing terrorist too fast, then you're creating a baseless scandal. But if you shut your eyes too long and something emerges, everyone will ask why you didn't see it coming. There are no cut-and-dry answers. Intelligence officers and those who work with them must be trained to be able to deal with anything."
Though the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution was perhaps best positioned to uncover the deeds, it's also the case that many other groups, including the media and anti-Nazi associations, also overlooked the links between the murders committed by the terror group.
Schröder made the observation: "It's hard to imagine that this was the deed of just a few individuals - that two men and a woman who were able to commit such crimes for years, without supporters and conspirators, and go uncaught."
Which is why the many remaining open questions must continue to be looked into, he said.
Author: Günther Birkenstock / gsw
Editor: Sonya Diehn