Photo Gallery: De Maizière on the Terror Threat


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

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

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

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

De Maizière: Definitely.

SPIEGEL: When, for example?

De Maizière: 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 Maizière: 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 Maizière: 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.

'I Stand for a Strong State'

SPIEGEL: In 1998, the German Constitutional Court ruled that the German government is not allowed to have a nationwide police force because, according to the constitution, the individual German states are responsible for police matters. (Editor's note: The current federal police force is actually the former federal border police force, which was given new assignments after the introduction of the borderless Schengen Area.)

De Maizière: I don't want to be granted any new powers or authority -- I only want the police that we now have, to be organized differently with their current powers and authority. My interior minister colleagues should have taken a look at this instead of immediately launching into a tirade. You don't openly criticize members of your family in public. I personally follow that principle. Unfortunately, it was mainly the conservative state-level interior ministers who were particularly vocal in their criticism …

SPIEGEL: ... the Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, for example, and the interior minister of lower Saxony, Uwe Schünemann. Your colleagues among the conservatives expect you to show some muscle.

De Maizière: Showing strength is different than showing muscle. I stand for a strong state that safeguards freedom. I don't need to show muscle for that.

SPIEGEL: People at the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) seem to be in something a state of shock ever since the reform plans were announced. Why did you choose the worst imaginable moment to introduce your plans?

De Maizière: The terror situation is currently difficult, and it will be that way a year from now as well. I expect police officers to behave professionally -- after all, we specifically intend to bolster the BKA. With terrorism and crime increasing internationally, the right response, especially now, is a BKA with enhanced expertise in the area of organized crime. Collaboration between the BKA and the federal police could be improved. There are not enough joint tactics, not enough joint investigations -- there is not enough information shared. That just won't do. We will significantly expand our international investigations with the reform.

SPIEGEL: So you have already made up your mind?

De Maizière: No. I will now speak with the agencies involved, and with the states, and come to a decision in the spring. Immediately thereafter the reform will be implemented.

SPIEGEL: A major breakthrough would be a merger of the BKA and the federal police with the Customs Criminological Office. But you apparently didn't have the courage for that.

De Maizière: You know, I hear from some people that the reform is too big, and from others that it is too small.

SPIEGEL: In reality, you are avoiding any conflict with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who is responsible for customs.

De Maizière: That is nonsense. You can assume that Schäuble and I work very closely together. But you can also fill your backpack so full with rocks that you can no longer walk. It might be brilliantly packed, but you have lost all mobility.

SPIEGEL: We would like to talk with you about WikiLeaks. Is the organization a threat to democracy or does it enrich it?

De Maizière: WikiLeaks is irritating and annoying for Germany, but not a threat. From an international perspective, I see their actions as totally irresponsible. One might also ask, however, if a government is acting intelligently when it organizes its entire diplomatic correspondence on a network that can be accessed by 2.5 million people. I have my doubts, though, about total transparency being a basic human right. Governments also have to be able to communicate confidentially. Confidentiality and transparency are not mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin.

SPIEGEL: WikiLeaks is ultimately part of the system of checks and balances that exist in a democratic society. What do you see as the difference between it and media players such as SPIEGEL?

De Maizière: The media do not demand total access and total transparency. They are delighted, of course, when they get hold of classified documents. But journalists would not argue on the basis of political theory that there should be no more government secrets whatsoever. That is not even what SPIEGEL advocates -- but WikiLeaks does, and that is wrong. I think it is disquieting that those who live in a shadowy cyber world, of all people, demand total transparency from others.

SPIEGEL: The outrage has a lot to do with being on the receiving end. If the disclosures had to do with Burma, Russia or China, most critics would applaud the organization.

De Maizière: As long as we are talking about checks and balances, I would actually prefer it if WikiLeaks focused less on transparent and open Western democracies and more on the world's dictatorships and oppressive regimes. Then it could at least have a genuine informative purpose.

SPIEGEL: That is what WikiLeaks has done, for example, in Kenya, Somalia, China and Thailand.

De Maizière: I am all for that. Unfortunately, the most recent leaks were different. I stand by what I said, though: Communicating in confidentiality is a prerequisite for effective governance.

SPIEGEL: Then the first person you should complain to is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who violated this confidentiality by ordering American diplomats to spy on officials at the United Nations.

De Maizière: I was astounded when I read that.

SPIEGEL: Does WikiLeaks enjoy freedom of speech?

De Maizière: Yes, but not without limits. It is bound to general laws, and even press organs do not have freedom without responsibility. That may sound like a naïve appeal, but the principle of responsibility applies to everyone.

SPIEGEL: Is it acceptable that Amazon, PayPal and others boycott WikiLeaks?

De Maizière: If this occurs under pressure from the US government, I don't think it is acceptable. If a company freely decides to do so, then that is a corporate decision, but it is also politically problematic. I am a big advocate of what is known as net neutrality. This means that providers are compelled to transmit content without political or commercial pre-selection.

SPIEGEL: Then you should now show your solidarity with WikiLeaks because it is precisely this net neutrality that is being violated when the French minister of industry calls for blocking all WikiLeaks content.

De Maizière: Such bans effectively lead us to difficult issues that we will have to deal with for years to come. And, at some point in time, it also has to do with freedom of speech. This debate ranks among the most challenging Internet-related issues that I see on the horizon.

SPIEGEL: The government could legally regulate net neutrality.

De Maizière: That is difficult. The Internet is a modern infrastructure that plays a key role in the future of the state, our freedom and the economy. When it comes to other infrastructures such as electricity and water, the state has to ensure that these services are provided. But what does that mean when the state also has this responsibility with regard to the Internet? After all, you cannot protect something without intervening on some level. My main concern, though, is that we will soon criticize the state because it cannot live up to its protective function with regard to its citizens on the Internet -- and I'm much less concerned that we will intervene too much or too heavy handedly. From my perspective, the state has to assume responsibility for the integrity of international communications.

SPIEGEL: And how should it do that? Up until now, Germany has had the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) in Bonn.

De Maizière: If we see the Internet as a critical infrastructure, then we have to take a totally different approach. Indeed, service disruptions have to be avoided or at least resolved as quickly as possible. When the Internet goes down, consumers don't notice the difference between a technical malfunction, an act of sabotage by hackers or a military attack.

SPIEGEL: Are you planning some kind of cyber-sentinel?

De Maizière: We urgently need a national cyber-defense center to monitor the security and integrity of the Internet and endeavor to safeguard it -- under the leadership of the German Interior Ministry. The BSI will play an important role here, but we also have to involve large private Internet providers, who are chiefly responsible for operating this infrastructure.

SPIEGEL: There are apparently government interests behind many attacks, such as the use of spy software.

De Maizière: This is true, a number of attacks come from other states. But it is not readily recognizable based on the type of attack. A military aircraft has an identification number, the law of armed conflict applies here, and there are rules for all these things. But in this case the actual attacker is lurking in the shadows. That is why the planned defense center is so important. We are now going to closely consult on this within the German government, including with the Defense Ministry.

SPIEGEL: Now you are finally seizing an opportunity to fulfill your dream of finding new areas for the Bundeswehr, this time on the Internet.

De Maizière: No. I see no constitutional problems with the identification, staving off and defusing of outside threats. But it is true that we are generally going to encounter political, technical and legal limitations here, also in terms of interior and defense policies.

SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, we thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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