SPIEGEL Interview with German Interior Minister: 'WikiLeaks Is Annoying, But Not a Threat'

By Holger Stark and

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizičre talks about the failed terrorist attack in Stockholm, his opinion of WikiLeaks and governments' responsibility for protecting the Internet.

Photo Gallery: De Maizière on the Terror Threat Photos
REUTERS

SPIEGEL: Does the recent suicide attack in Stockholm mean that the wave of terror that you feared has now arrived in Europe?

Thomas de Maizičre: No. This has little to do with the warnings of attacks that we have been receiving for months. But it is unfortunately true that wide-scale public debates always lead to copycats who are not closely linked to global terrorist networks. This might have been the case here.

SPIEGEL: You're saying that the vociferous public debate in Germany about terror and the palpable level of tension that followed your Nov. 17 warning about a possible attack in Germany were a mistake?

De Maizičre: By no means, but the possible negative consequences are the reason why, for nearly a year, I carefully considered the issue of whether and when I should issue a public warning. Terrorism is also a form of psychology. In retrospect, for instance, we know that the threat in the run-up to the German 2009 parliamentary elections was just a psychological ploy. Also the fact that al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the parcel bombs mailed from the Arabian Peninsula six weeks ago, and the way they claimed responsibility, was primarily intended to have a psychological effect: Look here, with a few thousand dollars, we can attack international freight traffic. We shouldn't support these psychological tactics with a public debate.

SPIEGEL: But that's exactly what you did when you went before the cameras in November and warned of an attack.

De Maizičre: Our assessment of the situation was different then. What's more, it would be wrong if people got the impression that absolutely nothing is going on. The comments made by the minister responsible (for this issue) have to navigate between these two extremes, without knowing exactly what reaction will be prompted by one or the other.

SPIEGEL: If you issue an alert, the terrorists have achieved their objective of disrupting society. If you don't issue warnings, it's easier for the terrorists to carry out their plans. Does al-Qaida have the German interior minister at its mercy?

De Maizičre: No. Naturally al-Qaida is trying to manipulate us. On the other hand, we have to react. In the process, I made a fascinating observation. After I issued the warning, opinion polls revealed that a significant number of Germans felt safer than before. The way I interpret this is that people have a hard time dealing with vague, abstract threats that cannot be clearly recognized. By contrast, when there is a concrete danger, people are galvanized. This is a nice victory over the psychological warfare of the terrorists.

SPIEGEL: For an interior minister, does that mean: Warn people and give them precise information when there is a concrete danger, otherwise keep your mouth shut?

De Maizičre: You could put it that way.

SPIEGEL: The imminent attack that you predicted for the end of November did not materialize. When and how will you give the all-clear signal?

De Maizičre: There is still no reason to give the all-clear, and it would be a tactical error to announce a point in time right now. But when I can announce it, I will let the public know. After receiving these warnings, people have a right to be informed of such developments.

SPIEGEL: During such crisis situations in the past, each of your predecessors called for changes to the legal system. When he was the German interior minister, Otto Schily, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, wanted preventive detention for individuals who are considered a threat. What are you calling for?

De Maizičre: As you know, in our coalition (of the conservative Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats) we are grappling with the issues of data retention and a database for visa applicants. Overall, however, our laws are sufficient. I don't want anybody to accuse me of taking advantage of the situation to pursue a particular political agenda. What's more, an interior minister shouldn't demand too many things that are unlikely to be implemented.

SPIEGEL: Does the German interior minister have a secret desire to simply lock up all dangerous Islamists?

De Maizičre: No, because it wouldn't work. … But seeing as you are asking about secret desires: I would support an amendment to the constitution that would allow the German military, the Bundeswehr, to be deployed inside the country. But the political majorities are the way they are, and so I bite my tongue on this issue and don't push for it. That's the situation.

SPIEGEL: The highbrow German weekly Die Zeit has accused you of talking like one of their editors: weighing things up, taking all things into consideration and being self-reflective. Does this allegation annoy you?

De Maizičre: Security matters should not be entrusted to people who make decisions without weighing things up. By the way, I think this reflects a certain amount of intellectual arrogance on the part of the journalists.

SPIEGEL: Thomas de Maizičre ranting and attacking people verbally -- is that even conceivable?

De Maizičre: Definitely.

SPIEGEL: When, for example?

De Maizičre: When an important press organ publishes information that could impede investigations.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to a recent SPIEGEL article in which we gave detailed background information about your terror warning. Using an anonymized, abstract approach, we told the story of a caller who warned of an attack, and whose call led to the Reichstag building being sealed off.

De Maizičre: That kind of thing does annoy an interior minister. I was also annoyed by the fact that state-level interior ministers used inappropriate language to comment on the planned reform of the security agencies.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the controversial plans to merge the federal police with the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) and form a new "super police" force.

De Maizičre: I like the term "super police." But when a state like Bavaria has 33,000 police officers, and a federal police force is created with 35,000 officers, it doesn't make sense to say that one is an effective state-level police force and the other is a mammoth bureaucracy.

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