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Anti-terror law

January 9, 2012

The German government passed an anti-terror law after the 9/11 attacks that was designed to help authorities track and prevent terrorist attacks. Criticism of the law, present already back then, hasn't subsided.

Computer keyboard
Critics warn the law infringes privacy and civil rightsImage: Fotolia/kebox

In response to the attacks against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the German government proposed the establishment an anti-terror law which was to comprise 23 amendments to existing laws and numerous other legal regulations.

The federal departments affected by the changes included the office for the protection of the German constitution, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), the Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Federal Border Guard, and the Military Counter-Intelligence Service (MAD); as a result of the law, the authorization of these agencies was greatly expanded.

Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger
The law led to clashes between Bundestag lawmakersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

After the law was passed at the end of 2001 the agencies were able to obtain information about terror suspects from banks, airlines and telecommunications companies and even to track their cellular phones. Such data was able to be stored for up to 15 years.

But ever since its inception the law has been the brunt of criticism. The opposition, for instance, objected to the haste with which the law was passed through parliament at the end of 2001 - not even three months after the attacks on the US.

Sabine Leutheusser-Scharrenberger, who is now the federal justice minister, said back then that the law "could not be justified on any political or legal basis," complaining that it even contravened other laws in Germany's constitution.

Coalition divided

Certain aspects of the law were limited and had to be extended by parliament before January of 2007. This was accomplished in the summer of 2006 as part of the "extension" of the German Anti-Terror law.

In October of last year, the law was renewed for another four years by Chancellor Merkel's center-right coalition, which included votes from the opposition Social Democrats' faction. That vote came after a dispute lasting months in parliament in which Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich argued vehemently in support of the law but saw Justice Minister Leutheusser-Scharrenberger fight against it.

Poster that reads 'Freiheit statt Angst'
'Freedom instead of fear,' read the slogans of protestersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the end, Merkel's beleaguered junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), abstained from voting for the indefinite extension of the law. The liberal FDP saw this and the fact that none of the regulations included in the law were toughened, as its own political success.

In a parliamentary debate on extending the law that took place in September 2011, Interior Minister Friedrich stressed its success over the past ten years.

"Our laws were optimized through this process," Friedrich emphasized. "We are now able to access data in credit institutions directly instead of making inquiries that would require all accounts at the bank to be searched through."

"The anti-terror laws have led to the prevention of some acts of terror in Germany," Friedrich proclaimed, adding, at the same time, that the agencies had handled the sensitive information to which they were privy with great care.

Over the past 10 years, Friedrich said that only 80 inquiries had been made for information regarding flight passenger information, finance data, or telecommunications activity. With that said, however, Friedrich was keen not to play down the dangers of terrorism in Germany.

"We are dealing with a different threat since the law was passed in 2001. Germany is no longer a mere haven for terrorists, as it was back then; now Europe is even the target for attacks," he stressed.

'Horror for civil rights'

The 2001 law was passed in a "unique historical and global political situation, an emergency situation," Jan Korte, of Germany's Left party, criticized in the face of Friedrich's appraisal.

"Now, 10 years later, we are voting to extend this situation," Korte said, adding that it was "unacceptable" to make such encroachments into basic rights the norm in Germany, which he even described as a "horror" for civil rights and a "dent" in the country's democratic constitution.

The new law, which takes official effect on Tuesday, is to be extended until the end of 2015. The new amendments made this time around include the possibility for Germany's intelligence service to make inquiries through the central database of flight reservations. Also, the BND will be given access to bank account information of terror suspects.

Cables plugged into a server
Data is now to be stored for up to ten years, not 15Image: dapd

The new law will no longer include the possibility to track postal traffic, which itself wasn't used since the original law took effect in 2001. And the amount of time that data can be stored, until now 15 years, has been reduced to 10 years.

The data-retention plan had long been a point of opposition criticism, seeing as though the law saw for all data arising from telephone, e-mail and Internet conversations to be registered and stored for at least six months, regardless of whether the persons in question were suspected of terrorism or not.

This gave rise to the largest collective objection to invasions of privacy and civil rights in Germany, and, in response, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled on March 2, 2010 that the data-retention stipulations were in breach of Germany's constitution, the Basic Law.

Author: Arne Lichtenberg / glb
Editor: Andreas Illmer