Homeland Security Cooperation: Obama Opens Secret Laboratories to Germany

By Christian Schwägerl

The Americans have always kept their research into anti-terrorism technologies top secret -- until now. A new treaty between Germany and the US will give German scientists access to highly restricted laboratories.

It was a productive start to the week for US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and German Research Minister Annette Schavan. The two women met at 7:15 a.m. on Monday for breakfast at a five-star hotel in Berlin to discuss one of the most explosive issues in the era of international terrorism: How can the population and infrastructure be protected against catastrophic attacks without Western democracies being turned into Orwellian regimes?

A microscopic view of anthrax bacteria: The US and Germany are to cooperate on research into fighting terrorism.
Getty Images

A microscopic view of anthrax bacteria: The US and Germany are to cooperate on research into fighting terrorism.

After breakfast, Napolitano and Schavan signed a treaty on scientific and technological cooperation in the field of civil security -- the first agreement between Germany and the new US administration. "This is an important contribution to the strengthening of trans-Atlantic cooperation with the new US government," Schavan said ahead of the meeting.

"Homeland security is not about walling ourselves off from other countries, it is about cooperating with our allies," Napolitano said Monday, according to the Associated Press. Schavan said that Germany and the US wanted to exploit technology to find "innovative solutions" that guarantee a "good balance of security and freedoms."

The mere fact that Napolitano and Schavan were meeting to talk about using technology to fight terrorism was unusual: Until now, the Americans have kept their efforts to develop new security technologies secret.

The research offensive began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and has been fuelled with huge sums of money ever since. Universities, companies and secret laboratories are carrying out research into highly sensitive surveillance cameras, bomb detectors, biometric analysis software and vaccines against biological weapons, among other things. Until now, neither the general public nor the governments of the US's Western allies have learned much about the contents of that research.

But that should now change with the new treaty, at least in selected areas. Admittedly the joint research program will start on a small scale, compared to the billions that the US research initiative devours: Between €10 million and €20 million will be made available for four major projects until 2012. The symbolic value of the treaty is much greater, however. Although the preparatory work for the agreement was begun under the previous US administration of George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, in contrast to his predecessor, personally supports a new beginning in science policy and greater openness with American allies.

Germany is certainly in a position to offer the US something in return. As German research minister, Schavan has massively promoted the issue of civil security and initiated a large-scale research program. Around €123 million has been allocated to research between 2007 and 2011 into, for example, improved detection of so-called "dirty" nuclear bombs, developing emergency plans for large events and researching new scanning technologies.

German and American scientists will jointly tackle similar issues in the future. The 31-page treaty, which SPIEGEL ONLINE has seen, lays down the basis for co-operation in four main areas:

  • Understanding, prevention and detection of threats to civil security
  • Forensic science
  • Protection of critical infrastructure and key resources
  • Crisis response, "consequence management" and damage control in the event of serious incidents.

According to the treaty, particular emphasis will be placed on "the development of solutions which increase the security of individuals without restricting their freedom." Conversely, this means that solutions which do in fact limit civil liberties could also be developed, even if they are not the main focus of research efforts.

Janet Napolitano (left) and Annette Schavan celebrate with a glass of sparkling wine after signing the treaty Monday.
AP

Janet Napolitano (left) and Annette Schavan celebrate with a glass of sparkling wine after signing the treaty Monday.

Schavan recently experienced just how sensitive the general public is on the issue of security research when there was an outraged reaction to plans for controversial airport body scanners, which produce images effectively showing the naked bodies of passengers. Schavan stressed that it was not only engineers who had the say in German research programs -- academics from the humanities and social sciences have been given the task of recognizing possible threats to civil liberties, such as the use of biometric analysis, and weighing up those risks against the potential benefits of the technology.

Until now, the Americans have not shown so much consideration for civil liberties. Hence it is even more surprising just how far-reaching the objectives of the new German-American agreement are. The accord envisions exchanges of staff and technologies and the development of common standards and priorities. German researchers will get access to the top-secret laboratories where the Americans test their latest anti-terrorism technologies, and vice versa. Such openness would have previously been unimaginable.

The openness does have its limits, however: On page 23 of the treaty, it states that both sides can prevent the publication of research findings.

But first some research actually has to be carried out. Already at the Monday breakfast meeting, Schavan presented her American partner with a proposal for an issue she would like to see investigated. The US Congress has mandated that, as of 2012, each shipping container that comes to America from the EU must be checked for dirty bombs and other terrorist threats. On behalf of the German government, Schavan argued at Monday's meeting that such a comprehensive check could harm trade and would be hugely expensive.

Schavan believes that alternatives to 100-percent screening should be sought within the new framework of joint security research. One proposal is to classify containers into risk-based classes depending on their origin and content and give them more or less intensive inspections accordingly.

Schavan is hoping that Napolitano will be more ready to discuss this issue than the representatives of the Bush administration were. Schavan points out that Napolitano has questioned the 2012 deadline for the start of the inspection program and is concerned about the economic viability of the checks.

Nonetheless, Schavan is unlikely to push for her position too forcefully. After all, she does not want to subject the new German-American openness to a critical test right at the outset.

The US Department of Homeland Security told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday evening that it had been striving for some time to promote international cooperation in the field of security research. A similar agreement has been in place with Canada since 2004 and cooperation treaties were also signed with Israel and France in 2008.

The department confirmed that the treaty creates a legal framework for cooperation in both classified and unclassified projects. The first planned project is a joint workshop with experts in the field of visual analytics, to be held in Germany in June, spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said. However Kudwa said that clandestine laboratories whose existence is not known to the public do not exist in the US.

"Expanding research collaboration with international partners, while keeping a steady emphasis on personal information privacy and data protection, is a point of high priority for Secretary Napolitano," Kudwa said. "The goal of the US-Germany agreement will be to enhance security without limiting freedoms."

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