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Germany’s War on the War on Terror

Terrorist financiers: good. Tax evaders: bad.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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CSU chairman Horst Seehofer spoke of a “scandal” and described the negotiation plans as “absolutely preposterous.” The Franco-German Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit—the legendary “Dany the Red” of May ’68 fame—warned of an impending “putsch” in the European parliament. The head of Germany’s Free Democratic party (FDP) Guido Westerwelle—presently, the German foreign minister—insisted that the plan “must be stopped.” 

As echoed in the later remarks by Langen, one ostensible source of the outrage was the alleged bypassing of the European parliament by the council and the European Commission. Under the pre-Lisbon rules, the parliament did not have a right of co-decision in the matter. But that it was hardly the aim of the council to bypass the parliament is made abundantly clear by the fact that the negotiating mandate only concerned an interim agreement. The latter was supposed to remain in effect while a final agreement was negotiated and submitted for the parliament’s approval under the new Lisbon arrangements. It was this interim agreement—scheduled to run only until October 31 of this year—that the parliament rejected last month, opening up precisely the sort of security breach that the interim arrangement was designed to avoid.

While the German government had consented to negotiations on the agreement in July 2009, it is notable that when the completed agreement was approved by the European Council four months later, Germany abstained. As the council decision required unanimity, a German “no” would have killed the agreement then and there. But rather than bearing the onus of having torpedoed a crucial transatlantic security arrangement, the German government by its abstention simply handed off the issue to “Dany the Red,” Werner Langen, and the other “putschists” in the European parliament.

German opposition to the TFTP is couched in terms of privacy concerns and “data protection.” The opponents virtually never specify any concrete damage that an unsuspecting bank client might be expected to suffer on account of the program. After the parliament vote, U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley showed deference to this line of argument by knowingly observing, “It’s no secret that Europe and the United States approach privacy issues differently.” The general tone of the German opposition was captured by the Berliner Zeitung, which snippily titled a July 2009 report on the SWIFT negotiations “So Much for Bank Secrecy.”

But the fact of the matter is that the German government itself, in the name of combating tax evasion, has for many years now been conducting a veritable crusade against the confidentiality of bank client data. In the latest episode in this crusade, Chancellor Merkel recently endorsed the purchase of stolen Swiss bank data by state-level German tax authorities. (The decision was announced in early February, just a week before the EU parliament vote on the SWIFT interim agreement.) The data thief is reported to have been paid the equivalent of $3.4 million. Shortly thereafter, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble summarily declared to the Swiss press, “We will eliminate bank secrecy .  .  . in Europe.” Schäuble is a leading member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. 

Two years earlier, the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, had purchased data stolen from the Liechtenstein-based LGT Bank. The purchase led to, among other things, a televised police raid on the home of Klaus Zumwinkel, one of Germany’s best-known business executives and now its most famous tax evader. Not only did the BND pay the data thief the equivalent of $5.5 million. According to reports in the German media, it also furnished him with a new identity. One can only conclude that in the eyes of both of Germany’s leading political parties, it is good and righteous for Germany to violate a bank client’s expectation of confidentiality in the name of combating tax evasion and topping up the coffers of the German treasury, but it is bad and evil for the United States to do the same in the name of combating terrorism and saving lives.

In early March, in yet another decision that will undermine international counterterrorism efforts, Germany’s constitutional court overturned a law requiring telecommunications firms and Internet access providers to retain basic client usage data for six months. The German law merely served to implement the minimum requirement laid out in a 2006 European Union directive. In an act of defiance vis-à-vis the authority of the EU, the court ordered the data to be deleted—some of it “immediately.” 

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