What is the significance of the police secret service?

Internal security

Jonas Grutzpalk

To person

Dr. Jonas Grutzpalk has been Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration in North Rhine-Westphalia since 2009. He studied political science, sociology and comparative religious studies in Münster, Oxford and Bonn and was a consultant for "Protection of the Constitution through Enlightenment" at the Brandenburg Ministry of the Interior.

Tanja Zischke

Studied administrative science at the University of Potsdam, internships with the Berlin police and the Brandenburg Constitutional Protection.

The work of the intelligence services usually takes place in secret. News and secret services are therefore often wafted with an air of aloofness and mystery. But what exactly do these services do? How many are there in Germany, how do they differ, and what is the legal basis of their work?

View of the entrance to the headquarters of the Federal Intelligence Service in Pullach near Munich (& copy AP)

When talking about intelligence services, there is sometimes some conceptual imprecision. Then the intelligence service is equated or confused with the secret service or even the secret police. A look at our neighboring countries may help to get an idea in the truest sense of the word of what the activity of intelligence services is all about.

In France the intelligence services are called "services de renseignement" (thus: "information services"), while in the English-speaking area people like to speak of "intelligence". The primary task of the intelligence services is to collect, evaluate and pass on information. Confidentiality plays an important role for them, but this is a method or a means to an end instead of the actual core task. Intelligence services keep some information secret, for example to protect informants.

There are three intelligence services in the Federal Republic of Germany: the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as a domestic intelligence service, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) as the central foreign intelligence service and the Military Counter-Intelligence Service (MAD), which is responsible for military properties.

The second oldest trade in the world

Representation of the flow of information in a news service License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (CC, Jonas Grutzpalk)
Not entirely without irony, some authors call the intelligence service the "second oldest trade in the world". In fact, espionage has a long history as a form of planned information gathering. In contrast, the bureaucratically organized form of government information procurement is a phenomenon of the modern age. While premodern forms of police usually only acted as criminal prosecutors, modern police forces also have the right to take preventive action, i.e. before a criminal offense occurs. To do this, they need to collect and archive information so that they can be accessed when needed. The police, the intelligence service and the archive have taken several steps towards modernization together. Over time, a structure of organized knowledge management has developed that looks roughly the same for most intelligence services. The heart chamber of this information flow is the intelligence service evaluation. This is where the data come together, which is collected by the intelligence service survey methods as well as through open research. In the evaluation, data is collected, but what is even more important: interpreted.

Intelligence and secret services - then and now

An important distinction is made between democratic intelligence and dictatorial intelligence. In this context, the rule of law control of the respective intelligence services should be asked. For example, the Secret State Police (Gestapo) knew no legal barriers at all under the Nazi dictatorship (1933-1945). In their "Reichsbürgerkunde" from 1941, the authors Heinrich Kluge and Rudolf Krüger describe it as follows: The Gestapo "as guardian of the community has to intervene wherever its interests require it. Neither is a legal mandate necessary for this, nor is there one that prevents it legal barriers; their goal is the internal security of the German people's order against any disturbance and destruction. Their activity must neither be bound nor restricted by standards ". [1]

Another example of a secret service is the Ministry for State Security (MfS or Stasi) in the GDR, which defined itself as the "sword and shield of the party" in a "dictatorship of the proletariat". The legal basis of the Stasi was a statute of the National Defense Council, which was never published. The employees therefore only knew vaguely about the tasks and powers of the authority. Despite or because of this inadequate legal regulation of responsibilities, the authority continued to grow: In the last few years of the GDR, there was one full-time Stasi employee for every 170 GDR citizens. For comparison: In the Federal Republic of Germany there is one constitutional protection officer for every 13,000 citizens.

Who controls the services?

In contrast to secret services, intelligence services in a democracy must be subject to democratic control. In Germany, this role is taken over by various parliamentary control bodies, which are located in the Bundestag and in the state parliaments. In dictatorships, on the other hand, there are various undemocratic methods of ensuring control of the secret services: Often several secret services are set up in parallel and in competition with one another. Or the secret services are subordinate to the ruler, a party or a family in power.

The distinction between democratic news and dictatorial secret services is historically very woodcut and not always correct even today. The intelligence services of the Federal Republic of Germany have not always been clearly bound by the rule of law in their history, and deficiencies in questions of transparency and verifiability can still be identified today.

The separation requirement as a German peculiarity

Experience with the politically controlled Gestapo justified the reluctance with which the establishment of intelligence services in the emerging Federal Republic of Germany was discussed at the end of the 1940s. It was clear to the western allies that the future federal government would set up a "body for the collection and dissemination of information on subversive activities directed against the federal government". However, in the so-called "police letter" of April 14, 1949, the military governors stated that "this body (...) should not have any police powers" (e.g. preliminary arrests, house searches, etc.).

Here we find the historical root of what is still called the separation of the police and intelligence services today. It stipulates that intelligence services in Germany collect and evaluate certain information; It is the task of the police to draw conclusions from this information if necessary and to take police measures. For example, it happens that a state agency for the protection of the constitution learns of gun possession in the hands of right-wing extremists. It is then up to the police to break up such an arsenal and arrest the owner.

The separation requirement is not a compulsory part of a democratic intelligence service. A strict separation between police and intelligence activities is not demanded as vehemently in all democratic countries as in Germany. The US Federal Police FBI, for example, has both police and intelligence competencies. However, the experience from the division of labor described allows the conclusion for Germany that the separation requirement is a suitable instrument for avoiding abuse of the intelligence services that is hostile to democracy.

The separation requirement affects different levels:
  1. There is a ban on affiliation of the intelligence services to every police station (organizational dimension).
  2. The intelligence services are strictly denied police powers (functional dimension).
  3. This separation of powers also has an impact on the handling of information. According to this, the intelligence services must not have access to police information that was collected using police compulsory powers.
  4. Both institutions are assigned different areas of responsibility. While the police authorities take care of the prevention and investigation of criminal offenses, the field of activity of the intelligence services concentrates on the so-called apron: The intelligence services observe efforts whose behavior is not (yet) punishable, i.e. which are on the verge of legality (apron reconnaissance function) .
  5. In order for the separation requirement to be effective, a personal union between the police and the intelligence services is prohibited (personal separation).

Enlightenment at home as a mandate of the protection of the constitution

The protection of the constitution is - like the police - a state affair. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) is therefore not a higher authority with authority to issue instructions, but a kind of umbrella organization of the various state authorities for the protection of the constitution (LfV). The constitutional protection authorities of the federal states are the civil domestic intelligence service in the Federal Republic of Germany. According to the statutory provisions in the respective state constitutional protection laws, they serve to protect the free democratic basic order, the existence and protection of the federal government or a state. The state authorities for the protection of the constitution are controlled by parliamentary bodies in the respective state parliaments, which in some states are called the Parliamentary Control Committee (PKG) and in others the Parliamentary Control Commission (PKK).

One aspect of the work of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, counter-espionage, will only be discussed briefly here. In most of the state authorities it is underrepresented in terms of subject matter and personnel.
The organization chart of the LfV Hessen as an example of the possible internal organization of a VS authority in Germany. Status: October 17, 2011 (& copy LfV Hessen)
The so-called "secret protection" - that is, the technical and personal security of security-relevant information - is a task that is offered by most constitutional protection authorities in the form of educational activities for security-sensitive authorities and companies.

The central task of the constitution protection authorities is to observe long-term associations of persons (so-called endeavors) that attack some core areas of the democratic community (the so-called free democratic basic order), both with open and covert methods. The covert methods include, among other things, surveillance, wiretapping or the use of informants to sell information from efforts to the protection of the constitution.