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In War on Terror, How Far Is Too Far?

Stefan Dege (jen)December 27, 2005

The affair over secret CIA prisoner transports in Europe has revived a partisan debate within Germany over internal security. What should -- and shouldn't -- be allowed in the fight against terror?

New German passports now include biometric dataImage: AP

German politicians agree on one thing: the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 changed the world.

"Since September 11, 2001, we know we are facing terrorists who are trying to have their way with our constitutional democracies," Dirk Niebel, general secretary of the Free Democrat Party, or FDP, said recently.

Facing 'asymetrical threat'

"It is an asymetrical threat that has had the effect of shifting the border between internal and external security; the border between intelligence and law enforcement."

Khaled el Masri wurde von der CIA entführt
Lebanese German Khaled el Masri was abducted by the CIA as a terror suspectImage: AP

The terrorists' tactics mean constitutional democracies need to change their defense strategies in order to protect their citizens. Intelligence agencies have automatically taken up front-line positions in this fight. But what should they be allowed to do to protect their citizens -- and what shouldn't they? How far can they go to collect information? The debate over these issues has just begun.

Debate on eavesdropping in US

In the US last week, controversy broke out after word got out that US President George W. Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on telephone and internet conversations inside the US, without first getting court approval. A debate is raging as to whether Bush had the legal authority to order the spying or if it amounts to an unlawful circumvention of federal laws established to protect the privacy rights of Americans.

The prominent media attention to that affair, the recent uproar over the CIA's abduction of Lebanese-born German national Khaled el Masri, and reports that German intelligence agents interrogated prisoners in Guantanamo and in Syrian torture prisons led Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who was responsible for secret intelligence in the previous administration) to take a stand before the German parliament.

Außenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier Susanne Osthoff
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was head of secret services in the last administrationImage: AP

"The German government has always made it clear that cooperation does and must take place on the basis of valid law. That is especially true for the Masri case," Steinmeier told the Bundestag.

But Wolfgang Wieland, security expert fort he Green party, says that when a state "reaps the fruits of torture," it is "overstepping the red line."

Neither the torture issue nor incarceration of terror suspects is addressed in the coalition agreement between Germany's governing left-right coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. But the partners did agree to expand the so-called "prevention authorities" of the Federal Criminal Police (BKA), in order to make it easier to track criminals in the federal states.

World Cup danger?

But the CDU/CSU wants more. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble would like to be allowed to deploy the army within Germany, for example.

BdT Freundschaftsspiel Ronaldo & Friends vs. Zidane & Friends gegen den Hunger, Fußball, Pocher
Germany will be on high alert for terrorism during the soccer World Cup this summerImage: AP

"Especially during the World Cup soccer matches it would be easy to imagine such (terror) situtations that would bring us to a point where the police force won't be enough," he said. "If that's the case, we could use our army as a temporary solution, if it is necessary for defense."

Schäuble's approach gets a divisive reaction from coalition partners. SPD parliamentary group head Peter Struck calls it "irritating;" SPD defense expert Rainer Arnold said "Schauble is harming the German army." And even Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung, himself a CDU member, said "The German army is not an auxiliary police force."

Whatever measures are to be taken on terrorism and intelligence gathering, it is doubtful changes will be made any time soon. Union und SPD leaders have agreed to approach the topic after the German constitutional court decides on airline security laws regulating shooting down hijacked airplanes.