Terrorism Interview with German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble 'We Could Be Struck at Anytime'

In an interview that has outraged politicians and media commentators alike, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, 64, calls for changes to Germany's constitution to simplify the fight against terror. It's a discussion that goes to the fringes of what's allowed in a constitutional state: preventative detainments, clandestine seizure of private computer data and even targeted killings.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schäuble, the British authorities hardly knew anything about the terrorists who struck in London and Glasgow last week. German intelligence agencies had never heard of the terrorists who deposited explosives in suitcases at German train stations in July 2006. Have investigators lost contact with potential terrorists in Europe?

Schäuble: The problem is that such groups now form spontaneously. In the case of the suitcase bombers last summer, the suspected perpetrators met each other only a few months before. It seems to have been similar in Britain, according to the first investigation results. To that extent, it is true that we are far from knowing all potential attackers.

SPIEGEL: It seems as if it were now purely a question of luck whether or not an attack can be prevented.

Schäuble: It was indeed luck that the suitcase bombs in Cologne did not detonate, but we must not rely on that. The intelligence agencies and the Federal Criminal Police Office in particular need to do everything conceivable. But in the case of us suffering a heavy attack, we should retain the necessary measure of composure, as the British are doing now. That is what I am thinking of when I say: We could be struck at anytime. It is a form of political precaution.

SPIEGEL: Terrorism thrives on spreading fear. Is it wise for the interior minister and his state secretary to participate in this interplay and compare the situation today with the one shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?

Schäuble: When we say the likelihood of an attack is greater than ever before, there is no fearmongering involved in that. It is a representation of reality. Unfortunately, the public tends to believe we are not threatened.

SPIEGEL: The way the situation is currently coming to a head can be traced back to the Americans, who warn of imminent attacks in an analysis and call for doing more to prevent them. To what extent do you feel pressured by Washington?

Schäuble: We are currently cooperating more closely with the US intelligence agencies than ever before. No country has global intelligence as good as that of the Americans. We profit from it every day. In recent weeks, I have met several times with Michael Chertoff, the US Secretary of Homeland Security. In mid-May, he also visited me with his wife back home in our house in Gengenbach, and we had a very open exchange about the danger of terror.

SPIEGEL: That exchange seems to have had a lasting effect. Following Chertoff's visit, Angela Merkel's chief of staff in the Chancellery, Thomas de Maiziere, summoned the so-called Security Group -- a crisis task force formed to prepare for terrorist attacks -- for the first time since the fall of 2001. The government wanted to discuss plans for responding to the real thing.

Schäuble: We and the Americans have known about the increased threat to US installations in Germany for months. We are observing the travel movements of suspicious  people between Pakistan and Germany.

SPIEGEL: In your view, the regular security policy tools are insufficient for dealing with Islamic terrorism, because it represents a blend of crime and war. Are you searching for a third way beyond adversary criminal law and the classic constitutional state?

Schäuble: The fact is that the old categories no longer apply. We are not waging a classic war in Afghanistan, but the international legal order does not fit there either, which is why we need new concepts. The fight against international terrorism cannot be mastered by the classic methods of the police, in any case. If for example potential terrorists, so-called endangerers, cannot be extradited -- what do we do with them? One could, for example, create a law making conspiracy a criminal offense, as the United States has done. But the other question is: Can one treat such endangerers like combatants and detain them?

SPIEGEL: You want preventative detention for Islamists?

Schäuble: No. But we have to clarify whether our constitutional state is sufficient for confronting the new threats. So-called preventive detention already exists today -- for hooligans at soccer games, for example -- albeit with tight legal restrictions. And we must discuss whether the degree of prevention that is already a feature of our police laws today is sufficient. One could for example impose conditions on someone who cannot be extradited, such as a ban on Internet or mobile phone communication. The legal problems extend all the way to extreme cases such as so-called targeted killing ...

SPIEGEL: ... meaning the systematic assassination of suspects by the state. Your predecessor Otto Schily already threatened Islamists with such a measure when he said: "Those who love death can have it."

Schäuble: Imagine someone knew what cave Osama bin Laden is sitting in. A remote-controlled missile could then be fired in order to kill him.

SPIEGEL: Germany's federal government would probably send a public prosecutor there first, to arrest bin Laden ...

Schäuble: … and the Americans would execute him with a missile, and most people would say: Thank God. But let us be honest: The legal questions involved would be completely open, especially if Germans were involved. We should try to clarify such questions as precisely as possible in constitutional law, and create legal bases that give us the necessary liberties in the struggle against terrorism. I think nothing of citing a supra-legal state of emergency, in accordance with the motto: "Necessity knows no law."

SPIEGEL: You stretch the constitutional state to its limits when you reshape it into a state of prevention and thereby also accept state killings.

Schäuble: Oh, not at all! Just take a look at the police laws of Germany's states: The so-called final saving gunshot has long featured there. Our constitution would fall apart if we did not adjust it, especially when it comes to such central issues. Whoever wants to preserve freedom has to act when social circumstances have changed. We no longer live in the world of 1949.

SPIEGEL: Could it be the price of security is so high that the constitutional state abandons itself for fear of terror?

Schäuble: The opposite is correct. The liberal constitution would be threatened if we were to create the impression that we can provide less protection than other, less democratic state forms. That is the lesson learned from Weimar. I am an enthusiastic adherent of the liberal, rule-of-law constitution. But if we do not want terrorists to take it away from us, we must act.

SPIEGEL: Would it not be timely -- six years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and in light of Guantanamo -- for the German interior minister to say: We are vigilant, but we will not cross a certain red line, because that would irrevocably transform our society?

Schäuble: I cannot accept this question. I would like to see a less hysterical discussion culture. The red line is very simple: It is always defined by the constitution, which can however be changed. A proposal to modify constitutional law is not an attack on the constitution. To me, strengthening the idea of prevention also means strengthening the constitution, because it gives people faith.

'The Internet Has Become the Central Medium for Islamists'

SPIEGEL: Sometimes you interpret constitutional law very flexibly when new surveillance powers are at issue, as shown for example by secret online investigations. The security authorities have used such investigations for years without any legal basis.

Schäuble: Hold on. There was one case where the method was applied domestically. I stopped the practice following the Constitutional Court's decision, by which the judges criticized the lack of a legal basis. I think the decision was legally correct, by the way. But that cannot mean that we can no longer access computers at all. What we need to do now is create a clean legal basis for it, and we are working on that. We want to handle this in a transparent, controlled and verifiable way. Whether or not a piece of information that the intelligence agencies co-read infringes on the core area of the private sphere is something a judge has to decide in each specific case -- after the data has been secured.

SPIEGEL: Previously, you said you wanted to introduce the draft law prior to parliament's summer recess, which has now begun. What happened to your proposal?

Schäuble: Well, I obviously was not able to do that.

SPIEGEL: And now? Will you dare to proceed alone and present the controversial draft to Merkel's cabinet, including the formulations calling for secret online investigations?

Schäuble: I am still pinning my hopes on dialogue. There have been encouraging signals. The parliamentary leader of the Social Democrat Party (SPD), Peter Struck, just publicly confirmed to me that he is entirely willing to talk about my proposals. That also concerns online investigations. What annoys me is the journalistic parlance. In it, secret investigations are all that is talked about ...

SPIEGEL: ... and they are precisely the issue. In the case of house searches, the code of criminal procedure stipulates that the person whose home is searched may be present. But when you search a computer by an online investigation, no one finds out.

Schäuble: When it comes to averting dangers, one sometimes needs to act without the knowledge of the people affected. When the matter has been dealt with or when it turns out there was no cause or that the problem has been solved, then people should and will be informed.

SPIEGEL: Those affected -- whose computer data was in some cases under observation from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, and the police for more than a year -- do not know to this day that the authorities possess the contents of their hard drive.

Schäuble: You know what upsets me? I did not make this decision -- and I even stopped the practice following the court's decision. I don't like it when those who were a little more generous on the issue ...

SPIEGEL: ... the Social Democrats, who carried out the online investigation under Otto Schily ...

Schäuble: ... accuse me of being someone who constantly wants to violate the constitution.

SPIEGEL: You create the impression of wanting to settle the question of guilt pre-emptively now, in case a bomb explodes.

Schäuble: No, but the Internet has become the central medium for Islamists, and whoever does not see this has not understood the signs of the times. The issue is pressing. I cannot wait until after the beginning of the next legislative period.

SPIEGEL: Biometric ID cards, video surveillance , flight passenger data , scent samples , Tornado jets above Heiligendamm : By acting in this martial manner, are you not fraudulently presenting citizens with an alleged security increase you in fact cannot guarantee?

Schäuble: But I am always the one who says there is no such thing as 100 percent security. As interior minister, I don't act as if we have everything under control either. Before the 2006 FIFA World Cup and before the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, I said there is no guarantee everything will remain calm. That is why I refuse to be characterized as someone who conveys a false impression of security by adopting an especially martial manner.

SPIEGEL: Can you understand that your advances cause many citizens to feel uneasy?

Schäuble: I know there are fears and that this also only meets with limited approval in opinion polls. It's a bit like with the population census. That is why I demand of political leadership that it takes these fears seriously but does not give in to them. We must try to convince people. I advertize it and explain it, and I do nothing secretly. I do it on clear bases in constitutional law.

SPIEGEL: A T-shirt featuring your face and the words "Stasi 2.0" is a sales hit on the Internet. Are you familiar with it?

Schäuble: Not until now. In that case, if I may put it ironically, at least the free market economy has asserted itself. But seriously: That is the result of frivolous public debates and frivolous reporting, and it annoys me. When I have discussions with 15- or 16-year-old students, then it does hurt me to see the results of these debates. These children, who have no inhibitions about circulating all their data on the Internet, now believe they are living in a state where they are under around-the-clock surveillance by the interior minister.

SPIEGEL: But it was you and your colleagues who contributed to this feeling by taking scent samples of G-8 critics and with low-flying Tornado jets above the protest camps at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm.

Schäuble: Not the interior minister. On that issue, you must consult the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, the interior minister of (the eastern German state of) Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the Defense Ministry.

SPIEGEL: We're talking about a widespread impression in the population…

Schäuble: ... which is often shaped by incomplete information. You don't seriously want to claim that taking a scent sample of three suspects even remotely has anything to do with the practices of the Stasi (the secret police in the former East Germany)! When that is how this is reported on TV and in the press, and when politicians also talk that way, then 14-year-old secondary school students believe that is how it is.

SPIEGEL: Given your vehement call for a strong state, you ought to endorse the fact that the Munich public prosecutor's office has requested the arrest of the three alleged CIA agents who kidnapped Khalid al-Masri, the German citizen of Lebanese descent, in 2004. Why did you criticize the dogedness of the German judiciary in this case?

Schäuble: We are literally vitally dependent on cooperation with other intelligence agencies, especially the Americans. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to bear the responsibility for the security of this country as interior minister. On the other hand, intelligence agencies are also bound to observe the law. But the United States take the view that it is best for them to manage that themselves. We should respect that.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schäuble, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Stefan Aust, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark.