Quite surprisingly, last Wednesday the German Chancellery confirmed the removal of Gerhard Schindler as president of the German Foreign Intelligence Agency (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND). Schindler will be officially replaced by Bruno Kahl, a finance ministry official, from July onward. The Chancellery did not state any particular reason for Schindler to be removed two years before reaching retirement age; however, what appeared as an unexpected move might actually reflect an overall shift in Germany’s internal security policy.
In fact, there would have been many moments and many reasons to replace Schindler as BND president in the past. He came under pressure in 2015 when it emerged that the BND had acted against German interests by spying on its own citizens and European partners (high-ranking officials of the French foreign ministry, the Elysée Palace, and the EU Commission) at the request of the NSA. An established NSA investigation committee in the German Bundestag revealed that there were departments, such as the so-called “technical observation,” that acted beyond any supervision. At the time, Schindler himself admitted that some of the departments in the BND had taken on “a life of their own.” In light of these revelations, it would not have been surprising to recall the head of the service.
So, why now? Germany—for many possible reasons—has not suffered a major attack by Islamist militants on its soil. However the risk is high that Germany is now seen as a primary target of ISIL. In the last few months, the terrorist group repeatedly posted pictures online encouraging German Muslims to carry out Brussels-style attacks in Germany. Indeed, the Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, confirmed about 800 German citizens have travelled to Syria to join ISIL and around 470 would be potentially ready to commit an attack in Germany.
The following observations lead to the conclusion that, most likely driven by the Paris attacks at first and later by the Brussels attacks, the government has become quite aware of that threat and is looking for appropriate answers on the political level.
On a more symbolic level, there was another important moment last Tuesday when Chancellor Merkel visited—after nine years—the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ) in Berlin. The GTAZ was established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the context of increased threats originating from Islamist terrorism, which has had a significant impact on Germany’s security architecture. Since 2004 the authority has served as a joint cooperation and communication platform used by 40 internal security agencies, such as the BND but also the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt) and the 16 intelligence services of the federal states (Landesämter für Verfassungsschutz).
The GTAZ is said to be very successful in its unique approach combining several security institutions and gathering information among them. Various cases, such as the investigations into the Sauerland cell, have led to the prevention of a terrorist attack in Germany. Moreover, on the EU level, the GTAZ’s structure served as an example for the recently-established European Counter Terrorism Center in The Hague.
With her visit, Merkel gave serious acknowledgement to the GTAZ as an essential security authority encountering terrorism and protecting German citizens. “We have a security situation that has changed significantly and requires the attention of all responsible agencies,” she stated. At the same time, she also called for intensive international cooperation between security authorities. De Maizière called the GTAZ a successful model. “The situation in Germany and Europe is very serious,” he admitted, “we must be vigilant and exchange relevant information.”
One day later, Merkel’s Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier announced the removal of BND president Schindler without any particular reason. However, his statement revealed a lot about the rising awareness of an actual terrorist threat and the willingness to react with effective means: “The BND faces major challenges over the coming years, encompassing all aspects of its work,” he stated. “These include the evolution of its mission in light of shifting security challenges, the upgrading of the agency on the technical and personnel front, organizational and legal consequences arising from the parliamentary investigation into the NSA […].” Clearly Altmaier aims at fundamentally reforming the BND, giving it more powers and resources, but at the same time making it controllable (for the Chancellery).
This new political awareness and priority spent on BND activity might soon be transformed into law. Altmaier also announced that a BND reform is supposed to be passed later this year. Though this has been a long-time project, the German government has not yet reached a deal on far-reaching changes of the service. The coalition of CDU and SPD disagreed over basic points on whether the BND should have limited freedom of action, e.g., by explicitly prohibiting corporate espionage as well as political espionage in other EU countries and institutions, and by granting the Bundestag extensive rights of controlling the service activity. It was especially the SPD, arguing in favor of guarding fundamental rights, which insisted on extensive changes against the line of CDU “hardliners.”
One of those hardliners is said to be finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. As an expert (former Minister of the Interior) of internal security questions, he has argued against a fundamental reform of the BND, saying that this would only lead to more bureaucracy and the Bundestag would take over the task of the executive: the control of the BND.
Now everything comes full circle. Bruno Kahl, the future president of the BND, is known as a close ally to Schäuble. He formerly worked in the Ministry of Interior with Schäuble, and followed him into the Ministry of Finance. He is said to have long-term experience working on the management level, organizing the entire architecture of a Ministry. Thus, the new position can be considered in several dimensions, but it without a doubt a political decision: first, a manager has been appointed in order to better organize the BND as an essential authority to protect public security. Second, it is a CDU confidant who will tend to protect the service from external scrutiny rather than improve outside political control by the Bundestag. Third, this tactical decision must be seen on a broader scale, reflecting a new awareness of the highly sensitive but equally important issue of homeland security in Germany.
Traditionally, it is not Germany’s position to be at the forefront when it comes to homeland security policy. Surveillance is a sensitive issue in the country due to the extensive strategic spying by the Stasi secret police in former East Germany and by the Gestapo during Nazi times. While keeping that historically-grown skepticism, with the growing threat from terrorism there seems to be a more nuanced political discussion and a shifting attitude on the question of how secret services should be organized in order to protect public security in Germany.
In his speech last Monday in Hannover, U.S. president Barack Obama recognized German concerns about the issue of privacy linked to history, but also cautioned against allowing it to dominate over security: “If we truly value our liberty, then we have to take steps that are necessary to share information and intelligence within Europe, as well as between the United States and Europe, to stop terrorists from travelling and crossing borders and killing innocent people.” An interesting time lies ahead: The upcoming months will show whether and to what extent the German government and the future BND president are in favor of this statement.
Pia Seyfried is a European Union policy expert, with a focus on foreign and security affairs. Her expertise covers counter-terrorism policy and intelligence cooperation at the EU level.