The German-U.S. anti-terror agreement signed on Tuesday cements an understanding that has been shared for the past 20 years. Now, in these times of high alert, the two countries have made their cooperation official.
Under a new agreement, German investigators and prosecutors will work closer with their American counterparts.
In the on-going fight against international terrorism, Germany and the United States have agreed to extend their cooperation by signing an agreement which makes official a standing arrangement between the two countries concerning the investigation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.
In a further sign of thawing relations between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President George W. Bush and the gradual improving of ties between the two countries, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft signed the bilateral legal assistance agreement in Washington on Tuesday.
Information and evidence to flow
Germany has stepped up its anti-terror investigations.
The agreement will make it possible for the German and U.S. administrations to exchange critical information and evidence on major international crimes and terrorism while allowing their law enforcement officials to seize evidence, question prisoners and search for suspects together. It will also allow both sides to request phone wiretaps and monitoring of suspected terrorists and other criminal targets, according to a statement from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Tuesday’s agreement had been in the making for the last two decades, Zypries said, but due to the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and continuing loss of life around the world associated with terrorist organizations, the need for such an agreement had intensified.
More effective collaboration
The German justice minister added that both governments recognized the need for a more extensive collaboration to hunt for suspected members of al Qaeda and other terrorists, and that the contract made the already fluid cooperation between the two countries "even more effective."
Since 2001, Germany and the United States have worked together on rounding up those who are suspected of working with the hijackers who crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The increased cooperation in the wake of the attacks led to Germany handing over information and evidence to the United States on Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent accused of conspiring to commit terrorism in the U.S.
Death sentence point carefully negotiated
One area where the agreement could have come undone, the question of extradition, was carefully negotiated between Zypries and Ashcroft. Germany has consistently blocked extradition and the exchange of information on suspects in capital cases where there was a chance that the death sentence could be handed down. In the case of Moussaoui, the U.S. promised that the information received from Germany would not be used to support his execution.
The two sides agreed on Tuesday to a delicately crafted clause in the agreement that makes it possible for either side to deny information "if essential interests" of any of the parties would be harmed, Zypries said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Germany remains firm
"When there is a question of a death penalty, we can withhold evidence or the results of an investigation," she said. "We only provide it if we are sure this bit of information will not yield to the death penalty and the U.S. has agreed to this formulation." Germany’s constitution prohibits the death penalty and the submission of material that could lead to capital punishment.
The justice minister said the U.S. met Germany at the half-way point on a number of contentious issues, including steps to make the arrangement comply with Germany's highly restrictive data restriction laws -- which seek to make data about a person's private affairs privileged. German legal aid will also only apply to civilian cases and not possible future military tribunals. If Moussaoui's trial is moved to a military court, a step the U.S. has discussed taking, Germany would withdraw any legal help it has provided in his case. So far, Germany has supplied the U.S. with about two-thirds of the pieces of evidence Washington has requested.
Zypries added that the full text of the agreement will be made public in about six weeks, once it has been presented to German legislators for discussion and ratified. She made it clear that the Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest judicial body, would not review the joint agreement adding that once the German parliament voted the agreement into law, other branches of government must abide by it.
"We don't discuss treaties or such agreements in the courts. There is a separation of powers," she said. "The fact that we have the power to hide evidence, when we sense that the death penalty may result because of it, means the Constitutional Court would not object, I believe," she added.
The deal could also slow the current U.S. practice of sanctioning American subsidiaries of German firms that have been sued in court and lost. Legal experts who have examined the document say the deal would weaken such cases now that German authorities could, technically, intervene in Germany on the court's behalf.