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Let's Abolish the Verfassungschutz

So, the latest embarrassment for the German domestic spy agency, officially called the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz/BfV), is the revelation that it has been spying on at least 1/3 of the federal parliamentary delegation of Germany's Left Party (Die Linke).

The Left Party was, at one point, the electoral successor to the SED, the offical East Germany party. Of course, with each passing year after reunification, that label is less and less accurate. The Left Party is now an established part of the political landscape. It got 12 percent of the vote (g) in the 2009 federal elections, more than the much better-known Green party, and currently has 76 members of the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag. Many of its members are disillusioned former members of the center-left Social Democratic Party. Its political program is left-wing democratic socialism, and it is strident in its critique of the growing gap between rich and poor in Germany and many aspects of German foreign and economic policy.

Yet this party, which enjoys the regular support of about 1 out of 10 Germans and appears routinely in talk shows broadcast on national television, is apparently a danger to the constitutional order. The BfV, which recently earned headlines for failing to stop a neo-Nazi terrorist gang's 10-year killing spree, had to recently admit that it was spying on 1/3 of the Left Party's federal parliamentary delegation. Yes, you heard it right: members of Parliament, elected by the public in free, fair, and open elections, are being spied on by the government itself. The rest of the world finds this pretty odd. Underneath a headline 'Cold War Tactics Against Germany's Left Under Scrutiny', Reuters recently described the controversy:

It had long been an open secret that the government kept close tabs on some of the more hardline Left MPs, but the revelation that no fewer than 27 elected lawmakers from the party - including parliamentary leader Gysi, a deputy speaker of parliament and other moderates - were being watched has led to widespread criticism and scrutiny of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution's (BvF) work.

The news compared unfavorably with the failure of the BvF and other agencies to combat right-wing violence - in particular a 10-year anti-immigrant murder spree by a small neo-Nazi cell that police stumbled across last November in Zwickau in east Germany.

Centre-right and centre-left lawmakers are now questioning the priorities of the security services and asking whether leftist MPs like Gysi pose such a threat to public order that federal agents should be assigned keep watch on them full-time.

The revelations have created a rare wave of solidarity for a party that in the west is ignored or reviled as extremist.

Now, the BfV claims that it has only been monitoring the public statements of the Left party MPs. But even supposing we believe them -- and there doesn't seem to be any way to independently verify this claim -- what is the point of that? After all, Germany is fairly crawling with people who are rather skilled at listening to and writing down what politicians say in public. They are called 'journalists'.

The original justification for the BfV was reasonable: after the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler used largely legal means (propaganda, effective organization, elections) to undermine and then overthrow the German constitutional order. It couldn't be ruled out that the next threat to German liberty could also arise from what seemed like 'ordinary' politics. By the time you realize that party or politician actually doesn't give a fig about democracy, it might be too late to stop him. The BfV was considered a part of Germany's post-war ideology of 'militant democracy' -- democracy that had its own built-in immune system to protect it from threats within.

Now, over the years, the BfV has suffered many hits to its representation -- many senior members were former Nazis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one of the former heads of the agency, Hubert Schrübbers, was forced to resign in 1972 after his dubious history as a prosecutor during National Socialism came to light -- enforcing Nazi laws, he sent Jews and leftists to concentration camps from which many never returned. Yes, you read that right -- during the 1950s and 1960s, the organization responsible for protecting Germany's democratic constitution was home to dozens, if not hundreds, of former Nazis. It should come as no surprise, then that the agency has been repeatedly accused of bias against left-wing groups and either intentionally or negligently failing to effectively monitor right-wing dangers.

But let's leave that to one side for now. Even assuming the BfV were run perfectly, I think it's simply outlived its usefulness. A couple of reasons:

  1. There is no powerful conspiracy afoot to destroy German democracy now, and there won't be in the foreseable future.
  2. Even if there were, contemporary German political culture is more than strong enough to resist it. There is just no possible way to imagine a 'threat from within' prevailing in Germany. Journalists would report on it, and the various government institutions for dealing with such threats (prosecutors, police, conventional intelligence agencies) are quite capable of responding. Plenty of other countries get along without a BfV.
  3. In a modern liberal democracy, there is no justification for a government routinely monitoring the political and religious choices of its citizens through domestic spying. The function of the BfV is essentially illiberal. Perhaps this was necessary during a volatile transitional period, such as immediately after World War II, but that period is long over.
  4. The state should punish citizens for what they do, not what they think. It's regrettable that there are neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists in Germany, but their mere existence threatens nobody. If they translate their ideology into actual criminal acts (violence, extortion, intimidation), then they should be severely punished. But spying on them and targeting them merely for having unwholesome views simply makes them into martyrs for freedom of expression.
  5. The BfV has funneled millions of euros in bribes and payoffs to the very groups it is spying on, which they then used to print right-wing propaganda and perhaps do even nastier things. How is that a sensible use of taxpayer money?
  6. The agency is a solution looking for a problem. By far the best evidence that the BfV has outlasted its usefulness is provided by the agency itself. Its report (English summary here as pdf) consists mostly of reporting controversial things some politician said, often from existing public press reports. If there are truly no more pressing dangers to German democracy than openly elected members of a political party (Die Linke or the NPD) or an odd quasi-religion (Scientology), then there are no pressing dangers to German democracy, period.
  7. The focus of the BfV is all wrong. The mission of the BfV requires it to focus on political extremism as a source of danger. But as in most all modern societies, the numbers of genuine political extremists in Germany are tiny, and the vast majority of them limit their activity to writing long screeds in the Internet or asking rambling questions at local council meetings.
  8. The evidence shows that larger, more mainstream organizations pose much more danger to the average German citizen. How about, say, the Catholic Church? Members of that organization were responsible for raping thousands of children over a period of decades. One single priest just pled guilty to a mind-breaking 280 counts (g) of abuse. A thought experiment: what if the BfV had spent just half the time it spends monitoring the handful of Scientologists in Germany instead working to uncover abusive priests? How many crimes and tragedies and broken lives could have been averted? Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that the Catholic Church is (1) itself not a democracy, (2) practices various forms of discrimination, and (3) routinely attempts to influence German politics. (My point is not to single out the Catholic Church, but to argue that focusing so muich attention on dangers from political extremism and fringe religions is misguided and wastes scarce resources.)
  9. Finally, as this article shows, the BfV is probably as likely to harm Germany's reputation abroad as help it. Of course, only a tiny handful of non-Germans knows the BfV exists, but still, for every one of them who says 'Oh, I'm glad the Germans are trying to make sure their country doesn't get hijacked by lunatics again' there is (at least) one who says: 'Why exactly is Germany spying on its own citizens? Are the problems there that bad?' and another one who says: 'How come all this expensive domestic spying didn't uncover the neo-Nazi terror gang? Why couldn't the BfV prevent, or find all the people responsible for, the worst terror attack in post-war German history, the extreme-right 1980 Oktoberfest bombing'?

Now, just to make a few points clear. I'm anticipating a lot of comments that point to this or that outrageous claim or questionable practice from the NPD, Die Linke, or some Scientology spox. ('Lots of Die Linke say they're Communists!' 'Scientology brainwashes people with pseudo-science!'). But that's beside the point. The main purpose of the BfV is (or at least is supposed to be) to counter threats to the 'free democratic order' (g) of Germany. Merely having communist sympathies or taking money from people seeking spiritual enlightenment doesn't threaten the very foundations of society. Exposing crank religions or outing unsavory political extremists is a job for the press, not government spies.

Also, I'm not saying that extremist political violence is not a problem or that there are no domestic dangers to German security. Threats exist -- but there are also agencies and institutions whose purpose is to deal with these threats. Most advanced countries preserve order without an agency like the BfV, and I think it's time Germany joined their ranks.