How powerful should security intelligence agencies be?

Germany has spent a long time apologising for the actions and crimes of the Nazi regime.  Not to mention the price it paid during the Versailles conference in 1919 for its decision to launch WWI (and in that case the price exacted by the victors played a big part in laying the conditions for WWII).  There is no question that the horrendous genocide orchestrated by the Nazis against the Jews has left a scar on modern Germany, one that has had a significant braking effect on that country’s foreign and military policy for a long time.

One of the lessons learned from the Third Reich, and one that resonates still today, was that having an all powerful central state was perhaps not a great model for Germany.  Many of the agencies that were concentrated in Berlin – such as the Gestapo – were empowered to act nationally and without oversight: the results are all too well known.

When the war ended and Germany became a democracy the victorious Allied Powers that were still in control wanted to ensure that the new state could not descend into dictatorship again. Out of this desire came the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, a wide ranging document that set the path for the country.  In light of the abuses seen under the Nazis, it was decided that a national security service, the “Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz” (the “Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution”), would not carry guns or have powers of arrest. Furthermore, the new organisation was heavily decentralised: each German state (or “Land” in German) has its own office, known as the LfVs.  All 16 Lander have one with varying levels of autonomy.

While these disparate agencies undoubtedly share information, recent “intelligence failures” (you know I hate that term but I will use it to illustrate a point) have led to calls for re-examining the country’s security architecture.  There is a joint counter-terrorism center (known as GTAZ in German) that purports to coordinate 40 German security agencies (emphasis added).  40 agencies all responsible for the same thing – i.e. national security – is a recipe for disaster.

Think about this for a minute.  Imagine that CSIS had 13 autonomous offices, one for each province and territory, as well as how these 13 would communicate, share data and have a national view of the threat picture. In actual fact, each of CSIS six regions (Atlantic, Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto, Prairie and BC) do have local authority to run operations but the whole organisation does have strong central control at its HQ in the nation’s capital.  Having 13 independent fiefdoms is not to be recommended.

Perhaps it is time for Germany to rationalise how it carries out national security investigations.  Centralising the LfVs into a more overarching BfV would not be perfect and some plots would inevitably sneak through.  There would, however, be some significant gains  in information  processing and analysis and the German government would have a much better way to detect and thwart attacks.  Advocating such a move should not raise the spectre of 1934 (a meme all too frequently used these days in light of the increase in anti-immigrant and populist movements).  The war ended 70 years ago: it is time to put that bogeyman to bed.

Rejigging how Germany does security intelligence would have to be carefully crafted and, more importantly, explained to the German populace. This would be tricky, but difficulty in carrying it out should not stand in the way of doing it.  Germans, and Germany’s allies, will be safer as a result.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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