W. Germans seek balance between security and individual rights
West Germany, like every democracy, agonizes about where to draw the line between defending and intruding on its citizens. The latest round of agonizing entered the Bundestag Friday with the first reading of four bills covering data protection and internal security. Two related bills on compulsory identity cards and passports will go to the Bundestag in three weeks. All this legislation is assured of passage by the center-right majority.
The last and most controversial bill, however, in what was initially meant to be a package, is still being contested within the governing coalition. This would regulate exchange of data between police and intelligence agencies.
The small Liberal party was responsible -- for reasons of civil rights -- for the two-year intramural wrangle over this security package and for the coalition's continuing failure to agree on the final bill. Although the Liberals are to the right of their senior conservative partners in economic policy, they are to their left on issues of individual rights.
The Liberals' constant foe in the coalition, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, scorns the Liberal misgivings and argues the need for better security. CSU Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann has declared that data protection must not be misused for ``protection of criminals.''
For their part, the federal and state Data Protection Commissioners, in conference earlier this week, criticized the current drafts for offering citizens too little defense. Federal Data Protection Commissioner Reinhold Baumann finds little to fault in current practices, as he certified in his annual report a few days ago, but he too has voiced concern about the new legislation.
Press commentary on the new bills is split. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung accused the Liberals of grandstanding and pointed out that the passport legislation has dragged on since 1980, when the Liberals themselves -- then in a center-left coalition -- endorsed the need for a new law. The Liberals, asserted the newspaper, have developed a virtual ``monomania'' about data protection and have elevated it to ``an end in itself.''
By contrast, the liberal Die Zeit raised fears of domestic spying. The proposed legislation, it commented in a front-page editorial column, ``would legalize a massive turnover of personal data,'' soften compulsory deadlines for erasing information, and let dragnets be set up without court authorization and for petty offenses. The conservatives' draft law on exchange of police and intelligence data, it continued, could easily lead to abuses, since only the police fall under strict court control, while the secret services fall under much more lax executive control.
As an example, Die Zeit cited the current allegations of misuse of intelligence agencies by the conservatives to collect information to discredit Green opponents. Ex-President Heribert Hellenbroich and incumbent Vice-President Stefan Pelny of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, the equivalent of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation) added fuel to these accusations last week by telling the Bundestag of their unhappiness about Interior Ministry orders to compile dossiers on links between various Greens and terrorists.
The still disputed new legislation on exchange of data between police and intelligence officials was made necessary in part by a Federal Consitutional (supreme) Court ruling in 1983. That ruling held that citizens have a right to know what data about them is being stored and circulated by officials.
Considerable debate also surrounds the intended introduction of new ``forge-proof'' and ``machine-readable'' identification cards and passports in 1987. Under the present draft, data from these cards (and other information) could be stored in cases of dragnets for specific serious crimes -- even when the stored material concerns non-suspects, and even when material is irrelevant to the specific search.
The first of the four bills submitted to the Bundestag Friday authorizes the BfV to compile information from all official agencies about extremism, terrorism, and espionage. The second is a comprehensive law -- none has existed before -- regulating the Military Counterintelligence Service. The third permits police to get on-line information 24 hours a day from vehicle and license registry computers.
The fourth regulates data protection, but restricts its coverage to automated data. It establishes the general right of citizens to know what data is being held about them and where. It also stipulates, however, that the BfV, the Federal Intelligence Service (comparable to the US Central Intelligence Agency), and the Military Counterintelligence Agency do not have to provide such information, and that under certain conditions the police too may refuse to give such information.