surveillance case

States, Secrets and Scapegoats

freedom of press dpa_distort
Protesting for freedom of the press in Berlin.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Coalition partners in Germany’s government are protecting themselves in the scandal, says the author.

  • Facts


    • The current case involved publication over the Internet of confidential government documents, concerning plans to monitor social media in the fight against terrorism.
    • Two bloggers from the Berlin-based Netzpolitik website reported they were being investigated for treason.
    • In 1962, the newsweekly Der Spiegel published secret defense ministry documents. The newspaper was raided and editors jailed, but courts later ruled in Der Spiegel’s favor. The defense minister at the time lost his job.
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The shrill chorus of those calling for the head of Hans-Georg Maassen is really only about one thing – finding another patsy.

Mr. Maassen, president of the Office for Protection of the Constitution, was only obeying his directives, by trying to protect an official or even a state secret.

He did pretty much what the chief executive of Apple, Google or BMW would have done if they had suspected industrial espionage. He got his legal department involved and reported the incident.

But Mr. Maassen is head of the German secret service – he doesn’t sell computers or automobiles – so the treason affair is a political one.

It’s no coincidence that the interior minister, who is also in charge of protecting the Constitution, is Mr. Maassen’s boss.

Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister, can give the latter directives, especially in the case of tricky issues like “treason.” Indeed, the affair is a classic example of a case where “can” should sometimes be replaced by “must.”

So far, Mr. de Maizière has managed to avoid any clear statement about his responsibility in the matter. One thing is clear: He was the only person who could have prevented the politically calamitous scandal at an early stage – quickly and above all quietly.

Of course, it remains a matter for debate whether “press freedom” applies to online publication of secret documents.

But there was no “Stop!” to be heard from the interior ministry. And now his renewed ambivalent reticence only serves to encourage the ever louder chorus calling for Mr. Maassen’s head.

For now, the political firewalls surrounding the interior and justice ministry are still holding, and for one reason. When the waves of indignation reached both ministries, it was immediately clear in the federal chancellery and in the coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats: If one falls, for example, the SPD minister of justice Heiko Maas, so will the other, Thomas de Maizière of the CDU. Or vice versa. Because the SPD quickly recognized that if it were to topple Mr. de Maizière, then Chancellor Angela Merkel would immediately remove Mr. Maas.

The political game is called “Together we stand, united we fall.” This closing of the ranks is to maintain the equilibrium of the grand coalition. That is why they are all shouting in Mr. Maassen’s direction: Stop thief!

But those responsible for this shameful affair are not officials in the authorities. They are in the ministries – in the middle of the coalition.

Of course, it remains a matter for debate whether “press freedom” – the formal term given during the Enlightenment and guaranteed by article 5 of the Constitution – applies to online publication of secret documents.

Indeed, unlike the notorious “Spiegel Affair” in 1962, apart from the treason, it wasn’t about the contents of secret documents. It was the act of publishing them, by the newsweekly Der Spiegel, which led to the scandal.

Now nobody is talking about Mr. Maassen’s plans. Only about treason. That is at least something to think about.


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