The German parliament has agreed on the creation of a much-debated anti-terror database and the expansion of laws brought into effect after Sept. 11. Critics continue to voice concerns about threats to civil liberties.
Supporters of the bill say Germany should do everything in its power to protect its citizens
After years of heated debate, the German Bundestag agreed Friday on the creation of a new anti-terror bill that is designed to promote communication and sharing of information between federal and state security services. It will also include the creation of a controversial national security database and increased surveillance powers for the police and intelligence agencies.
The proposal cleared the lower house of parliament with the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats. If the bill is approved by Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat, in discussions on Dec. 15, it will become law effective Jan. 1.
Rejecting opposition concerns that the new bill would turn Germany into a police state, Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble said no one could guarantee 100 percent security in these times but the government had the responsibility to do all it could to protect its citizens from the threat of international terrorism.
Schäuble said that no-one could guarantee total security
Schäuble maintained that the anti-terror database would create the right conditions for the police and the secret services to collaborate more efficiently and offer the highest level of security possible.
Though the grand coalition agreed on setting up a central anti-terrorism database last year, the two parties had differed on its exact shape and reach until Friday.
The idea is that all police and intelligence agencies, both at the federal and national level, would gather information about terror suspects and terrorist organizations in a central database that would be accessible to all crime-fighting agencies.
Fears about infringements on civil liberties
At present, Germany's 37 agencies do that separately. The central anti-terrorism database would also contain information about banking, telecommunication and Internet information regarding the suspects.
In addition to problems stemming from Germany's federal structure, critics had feared the database would create more bureaucracy as well as erode people's privacy.
Critics fear anti-terror info could lead to legal problems
Some members of the Social Democrats as well as members of the opposition Greens and the Left Party have expressed concerns that easily accessible information on terrorism suspects could be misused as well as create legal problems given the differing information-gathering methods of the police and intelligence agencies are allowed to employ.
Giving both police and intelligence services equal access to personal information about suspects is a sensitive issue in Germany, given abuses under both the Nazis and by communist East Germany.
There have also been fears that innocent people may become wrongly labeled as terrorists once they are included in the database as part of an investigation. "Whoever gets entered into that database will become a terrorist suspect," Greens politician Wolfgang Wieland said.
In-depth information released on request only
In a bid to limit this risk, the bill states that only the most basic information of people identified as a suspect in the initial investigations of the state police or Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) should be included in the database's first level.
Illegal possession of firearms would be included in the files
Should an investigation continue and become more concrete, more detailed information on suspects would only be released after an official request. These details would include religious affiliation, records pertaining to weapons possession or knowledge or possession of explosives and any affiliation with terror organizations.
Other information such as occupation, travel habits, bank and telecommunication data would also only be released on official request.
Post 9/11 terror laws expanded
As well as approving the creation of the anti-terror database, the Bundestag agreed to expand and extend the anti-terror laws that came into being in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
The existing laws, which went into effect in early 2002, allow police and secret services to use telephone communications, e-mails, faxes, bank accounts and travel data as sources of information. Under the proposed revisions, access to the same would be expanded. In addition, Germany's foreign intelligence service, BND, would have wider access to domestic police databases.