After Berlin Attack, the Cracks in Germany’s Security Are Showing

Christian Leuprecht, The Globe and Mail, December 20, 2016

The attack in Berlin may have taken the world by surprise; the only surprise to the German security and intelligence establishment is that something of the sort did not happen sooner.

Hannover, Würzburg, Ansbach: An air of terrorism has been hanging over Germany all year. Since the attacks in Paris and Brussels, German authorities have been on high alert, and nowhere more so than in Berlin: Note the pattern of sensational attacks in capital cities. The July shooting in Munich that caused authorities to shut down the city was the canary in the coal mine. As in Munich – but unlike Paris – the response in Berlin was swift and co-ordinated; with one notable difference: Information operations in Berlin were far superior because authorities there finally understood social media. Yet, authorities seem to have few leads (if any) and there are now doubts about the suspect who was initially apprehended. How is that possible?

Much of German’s security architecture was designed to prevent what happened during the Third Reich: The logic was to take domestic security out of the hands of the central government. Germany has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. As a result, agencies are loath to talk to one another: Foreign intelligence (the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND) faces severe hurdles communicating with domestic intelligence (the Verfassungsschutz, which loosely translates to protection of the constitution) – and is subject to an extensive parliamentary inquiry into unauthorized “selector” data sharing with the U.S. National Security Agency.

Domestic intelligence does not talk to police, and vice versa. This is the same organization that has been the focus of extensive inquiries because of its years-long inability to dismantle a small right-wing terrorist cell (the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, or NSU) that arbitrarily killed nine immigrant small-business owners across Germany, committed a series of bombings, premeditated the killing of a police officer and engaged in multiple robberies. Not only was the combined effort of several agencies unable to track down the perpetrators, but once the cell was dismantled by police, largely by accident, after yet another robbery, the Verfassungsschutz proceeded to destroy documents and erase data to cover its tracks, to the point where its own former director concluded that the Verfassungsschutz had lost “considerable credibility.”

Like much of Germany’s public administration, domestic security and intelligence infrastructure is decentralized: Each of the 16 states runs its own Verfassungsschutz and, until 9/11, Germany did not even have a federal police force (the Bundespolizei). And like all security intelligence agencies, sharing is not one of their virtues. The federal umbrella Verfassungsschutz in Cologne technically has the auspices over counterterrorism, but the fact that one of its employees was recently arrested as an Islamist sympathizer for actively inciting violent extremism on radical websites is hardly reassuring.

Every major Canadian city now has an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team that brings together security and intelligence elements from all levels of government and beyond. German authorities can only dream in Technicolor about such interagency collaboration. The Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum in Berlin supposedly co-ordinates domestic anti-terrorism in Germany. It is only staffed during working hours, Monday through Friday (and, as is common in Germany, on Friday afternoon they close up shop early). In part that is a function of extensive cuts to which German security and intelligence agencies have been subject for years; consequently, resources are at a premium.

Paris, Nice and Brussels notwithstanding, there is still no effective pan-European intelligence-sharing mechanism. Europol runs a common database, but it is populated sporadically at the whim of member countries. The fact that a journalist was recently able to download a host of such files from a USB drive that a former Dutch employee of the agency had unwittingly plugged into an unprotected home server that was connected to the Internet will not help in encouraging more active intelligence sharing through and with Europol. Germany has long sought to join the Five Eyes intelligence community; you may now understand why that exclusive club is not entertaining applications for membership.

The German case is illustrative: Being a large, capable country with significant foreign and domestic intelligence and law-enforcement capacities is not enough. German security is, at best, the sum of the parts. That is still better than France, where agencies such as the Police Nationale and the Gendarmerie actively compete with one another; that they do not co-operate should come as no surprise. Canada’s security architecture and partnerships are the envy of German, French and many other allied counterparts. Canada’s intelligence and security agencies are far from perfect, and they cannot possibly prevent every attack. Overall, their track record is comparatively good though. May the government of the day and its ongoing national security review take note.

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