The Fog of Disinformation German Security Chief a Thorn in Merkel's Side
The president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency cast doubt on whether foreigners were attacked by right-wing extremists in Chemnitz recently. And now he has become a significant problem for Chancellor Angela Merkel. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Back in May, Hans-Georg Maassen warned of the dangers of disinformation. He is in a position to know: As president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), he heads up Germany's domestic intelligence agency, which -- together with the 16 state offices -- is responsible for monitoring Islamist extremism in Germany in addition to political extremism on both the far left and far right.
At the May symposium for BfV officials in Berlin, he said that Western democracies were under threat from Russian campaigns. "Open societies," he said, "can tolerate many different opinions, but not many different truths."
He then warned: "If, via hybrid operations, falsehoods are spread, facts are manipulated, facts are suppressed, if opinions become facts and facts become opinions, citizens lose the reliable foundation upon which they make their political decisions."
An open society, he said, needs time to examine and contextualize the facts. Those who take aim at democracy take advantage of this time to "create facts in the fog of disinformation," Maassen said.
Not even six months later, the president of the BfV met with Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief of Germany's largest tabloid Bild, to discuss the far-right protests that took place recently in the eastern German city of Chemnitz following the stabbing death there of a German man at the hands of three refugees. News reports following the unrest reported that, in addition to raising their right arms in the Hitler salute, mobs of right-wingers had chased down foreigners to attack them. Videos emerged that seemed to confirm that version of events.
After the interview, Reichelt wrote an article containing explosive quotes from Maassen -- quotes that, following common practice in German journalism, Bild had first cleared with Maassen's office. The BfV president disputed reports of mobs chasing down foreigners. There was, he said, "no proof" for the authenticity of a video clearly showing right-wingers chasing down migrants. And, he added, "there are good reasons to believe that (the video) was purposeful misinformation potentially to distract the public from the murder in Chemnitz."
Maassen spoke of "murder" even though public prosecutors in Dresden were investigating three asylum-seekers for manslaughter. He spoke of "misinformation" even as his own agents were still investigating what had actually happened in Chemnitz. And he contradicted the chancellor, who had referenced the video in denouncing the events in the city.
One could almost say that he had created facts out of opinion and opinion out of facts. As though he had completely forgotten the warning he issued in May and sunk into the fog of disinformation himself.
Stuck in the Middle
His subsequent efforts at explanation haven't helped. Instead, it has become increasingly apparent that the president of an institution charged with protecting Germany's democracy has triggered a government crisis. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), has thrown his support behind Maassen, in part because of his desire to seem tough on migrants ahead of Bavarian state elections in October.
Meanwhile, Merkel's junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, are demanding that Maassen either step down or be fired. And Merkel is stuck in the middle. The next few days will be decisive both for the future of Maassen and the future of Merkel's current governing coalition.
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But the damage has been done. Hans-Georg Maassen has transformed himself into the chief witness for those who believe Germany's media and the country's political leadership are nothing more than a pack of liars. Chagrined backpedaling of the kind Maassen has since engaged in won't change that, nor will his claims that he never said the video had been falsified, or that he had merely questioned whether it "represented authentic proof that foreigners had been hunted down in Chemnitz."
After all, there is no doubt whatsoever about the authenticity of the 19-second clip, originally released by the group "Antifa Zeckenbiss." What exactly it shows, how exactly we choose to discuss it: Those things are up for debate. In a report filed to Interior Minister Seehofer, Maassen wrote: The video "merely" shows that "one person was chased by other persons for around five to seven meters." As such, he continued in the report, it would be inaccurate to say they were being "hunted down." Given the events that did take place, however, that is nothing but splitting hairs.
'Run Away Fast!'
Witness reports and additional film material have since provided us with a clear picture of what happened in Chemnitz on August 26 and 27 -- and in the ensuing days. Numerous foreigners were violently attacked, threatened and insulted. One girl had her headscarf torn off and she was beaten. Right-wingers chased a group of young Social Democrats for several minutes, some of them fell to the ground and some were kicked. The police called out: "Run away fast!" A dozen masked assailants armed with rocks attacked the Jewish restaurant Schalom. Those are just a few examples out of many.
Agents at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution are actually supposed to keep an eye on enemies of democracy. The events in Chemnitz provided Maassen with several opportunities to use the weight of his office to discuss unsettling developments that had come to light. For example, about the up to 2,500 right-wing extremists who marched on the streets of Chemnitz together with functionaries from the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the virulently Islamophobic movement Pegida. After all, the apparent comingling of these groups was an issue discussed in an internal teleconference involving agents from the BfV and its state subsidiaries.
He could also have discussed whether these events represented a danger to democracy, as some of his colleagues in the state agencies believe.
But instead, he chose to focus on semantics.
Even some within his own agency are distraught. One high-ranking official says the whole thing is completely "incomprehensible," adding: "What else are you supposed to call what you can see in the video?" He wonders: "How many Nazis have to chase how many migrants and for how long before Maassen recognizes they were being hunted down?" With such claims, the official says, the BfV president is undermining "the credibility of the entire security apparatus."
The head of one state agency even says that Maassen's comments didn't surprise him. Maassen's understanding of the office he holds, he continued, has bothered him for some time, adding that the BfV often no longer fulfills its actual purpose -- that of issuing early warnings of developments that could endanger Germany's liberal democratic foundation. And it didn't do so after Chemnitz. Again.
But what drives Maassen? For a senior intelligence official, he gives a surprising number of interviews. Depending on the situation, he issues warnings against terrorists or their children, makes demands or gloats publicly in cases where his agency has once again arrested a potential Islamist attacker.
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theories
Hypersensitivity to all types of danger is a common feature of those who work in the intelligence world. Some suffer from paranoia or have become susceptible to conspiracy theories. Maassen is aware of these risks, but he feels he is largely immune. He told the newsmagazine Stern that he has not yet been able to identify any negative personality traits resulting from his profession.
Maassen only rarely discusses his private life. It is known that he is married to a Japanese woman and that he loves the country and makes frequent visits. He provided additional details to two volunteer reporters from Stadt- und Landboten Rheindahlen, a tiny newspaper from his hometown of Mönchengladbach. Over a three-course meal and a bottle of white wine, he told them about his parents who used to run a cigar shop. He talked about his time as an altar boy, about how he quickly moved up the ranks to deputy head altar boy and that he learned to drink wine from the priest. And he spoke about working as a lawyer on Düsseldorf's swanky central boulevard -- an atmosphere, he said, that he wasn't fond of.
He moved over to the German Interior Ministry in 1991, where he got to know two political associates who would become his close friends. The first was Gerhard Schindler, who would become president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence service, in 2011. The second was Dieter Romann, who occupied several positions in the Interior Ministry before becoming head of Germany's Federal Police in August 2012, at the same time that Maassen became president of the BfV.
The promotions meant that the trio headed up a significant portion of the German security apparatus. Only the top positions at the Federal Criminal Police Office and at the Public Prosecutor General were occupied by men with whom Maassen and his two friends may not have had much in common.
When hundreds of thousands of refugees began pouring into Germany in summer 2015, the three largely stayed quiet, in part out of deference to the chancellor. And also because warnings and cautions would likely have been seen as being out of place amid the widespread optimism that gripped much of the country at the time.
But it wouldn't take long before Romann and Maassen, in particular, began to heavily criticize the country's refugee policies. They voiced their concerns frequently and spoke to dozens of journalists and editors-in-chief. Soon, many in Berlin were speaking of a revolt from the trio -- gossip that of course made its way to the Chancellery. The interior minister at the time, Thomas de Maizière, reminded Maassen and Romann on several occasions of their duty of loyalty, but went no further. He didn't venture to fire either one of them.
Schindler, the most reserved of the three, has since been replaced, in part due to his handling of the affair surrounding the NSA's spying on Germany and its chancellor. Maassen and Romann are still in their positions.
Maassen is "deeply convinced that Merkel's policies have made the country less safe," says one man who has been in professional contact with him over the course of several years. "When talking about the issue, you can literally see the veins pulsating in his neck."
Maassen has always been a hardliner when it comes to migration and laws pertaining to foreigners in the country. Indeed, that was apparent way back in 1997 when he published his Ph.D. dissertation on the "Legal Status of Asylum-Seekers in International Law." The 457-page document reflects the complexity of the issue, but it also contains sentences and opinions that are commonly found on the far right. He writes of "uncontrolled immigration," of "so-called asylum tourism," and of the increasing crime rate among foreigners. "The right of asylum in Europe these days is primarily characterized by its abuse," he wrote.
Inside the Interior Ministry, Maassen gained the reputation for being ultra-conservative. In a 1997 speech to the Hanns Seidel Foundation, which is linked to the CSU, he criticized people who offered assistance to those who had fled to Germany seeking religious asylum. He considered it conceivable that church congregations offering assistance could be investigated for the "establishment of a criminal association."
Maassen enjoys being a polarizing figure and is not afraid of making unpopular statements. He seems to believe that he can get away with it because of his notable expertise.
And he is widely considered to be an excellent lawyer who can soberly cut through even the most complicated of issues -- even by those who have little affection for him. He is also someone who will follow orders from above without hesitation, no matter if the Interior Ministry is led by a Social Democrat or by a conservative.
'Really Beautiful Hair'
One year after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, for example, at a time when both the Interior Ministry and the Chancellery were in the hands of the SPD, Maassen had no problem satisfying an urgent wish from the Chancellery. As head of division for immigration law, he made sure that Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish man from Bremen who had been locked up in Guantanamo despite having done nothing wrong, was not allowed to return to Germany. His justification: Because Kurnaz had been out of the country for more than six months, his residence permit was no longer valid.
Criticism and self-irony, on the other hand, are not things that Maassen is particularly fond of. When the "heute show," a satirical news program belonging to the German public broadcaster ZDF, filmed a 2015 appearance Maassen made in Cologne with then Interior Minister de Maizière, Maassen was apparently not amused. Who is that guy with the gold-rimmed glasses, wondered comedian Carolin Kebekus in the resulting clip. "Really beautiful hair."
He regularly believes he is being unfairly attacked by the media. In the affair surrounding NSA spying in Germany, he accused politicians and journalists of launching attacks on the security agencies. And when things go wrong, he is fond of blaming others. The series of murders committed by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), the far-right terror cell that killed 10 people mostly of Turkish origin between 2000 and 2006 and was only discovered in 2011, for example, was primarily the result of police failures, he said, adding that his agency was being unfairly criticized. Following the 2016 terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas market, Maassen said that it was certainly possible to speak of failures, "but that doesn't apply to my agency." Recently, though, it has emerged that his agency was in fact more deeply involved than previously known in investigating the perpetrator prior to the attack.
Among Berlin security officials, one interpretation of Maassen's curious comments pertaining to Chemnitz is an intensely personal one. Maassen, they say, feels he has been embarrassed by Merkel. One reason for that, it is said, is that he was not chosen to take over the BND once Schindler was gone.
The chitchat also holds that he would like to be given a regular audience with Merkel, but the chancellor has declined to grant him that wish. Now, they say, he is convinced that she is intentionally ignoring him and shunting him aside.
Chemnitz wasn't the first time that Maassen has raised hackles in the government. On one occasion, he suggested the use of digital counterattacks, so-called hack-backs, in the case of cyberattacks from abroad, even though such a thing is hardly the business of a domestic intelligence agency. The Chancellery was likewise unimpressed when he took to LinkedIn last December to accuse China of espionage.
Now, Maassen finds himself under suspicion of harboring sympathies for the AfD. Even as some state agencies for the protection of the constitution have long taken a much harder line when it comes to the increasingly extremist right-wing party, Maassen's federal agency has been much slower to react.
One reason for suspicions of Maassen's true stance on the AfD are reports that he not only met with former AfD leader Frauke Petry, but also with current party leader Alexander Gauland. It is still unclear what exactly Maassen discussed with the two and whether he crossed the line into giving political advice. He denies having done so. But it is still unusual that he met with Petry twice in November 2015 -- once on Nov. 2 and again on Nov. 30 -- even though the AfD didn't yet have any delegates in the federal parliament at the time.
In between those two meetings, he took part in a Nov. 4 gathering at the Interior Ministry of the state of Saarland during which the discussion focused on both the refugee crisis and on the proximity of the AfD's state chapter to right-wing extremist groups that were being monitored by state authorities. Officials at the meeting noted that there would soon be sufficient justification to monitor the AfD itself.
According to a senior AfD party member, Maassen then warned Petry of right-wing extremist activity in the state of Saarland -- a development that had been discussed in his meeting in the Saarland Interior Ministry. DER SPIEGEL reported on the meeting with Petry and its alleged content back in May 2016. At the time, the government said that Maassen "at no time made such comments to Frauke Petry." But neither side has said anything about what was actually discussed.
Maassen has angrily denied accusations that he has any affinity for the AfD. During a Wednesday meeting of the Committee on Internal Affairs in Germany parliament, he said such accusations couldn't be true because he has been a member of the CDU for the last 30 years. The admission came as a surprise: Not even long-time colleagues of his knew that he was a party colleague to the chancellor.
So what happens next? Following the disastrous handling of the NSU murders, there were some who openly called for the BfV to be abolished. That is no longer under serious consideration -- in part, no doubt, because Maassen has given so many interviews in which he has emphasized the importance of having a domestic intelligence service.
There are many who say that Maassen has in fact modernized his agency, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism and defense against cyberattacks. His agency has also been instrumental on several occasions in uncovering terrorist plots.
Others, though, say that Maassen has done little to implement the reform mission he was assigned with when hired for the job. They allege that the BfV president has managed to establish a bloated personal staff to control the agency but is otherwise not particularly interested in what it does.
"No significant changes have been made to the structures. In middle management, the same people have been sitting there for years," says one senior official. "Maassen has paid more attention to politics in Berlin than to the situation at agency headquarters in Cologne," says a long-time BfV employee.
The BfV president, though, has managed to dramatically increase the size of his agency. It currently has a staff of 3,100 people and plans call for it to rapidly grow in the coming years. By 2021, the agency would like to add 2,900 additional jobs, according to the Interior Ministry. The plans are apparently consistent with Maassen's desire to develop the BfV into a kind of domestic mirror of the much larger BND.
Those close to Maassen say that the enlargement efforts will focus primarily on the divisions responsible for counterterrorism and counterespionage. The divisions responsible for right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism, they say, are not central to the expansion plans.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Martin Knobbe, Fidelius Schmid and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt