I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.
Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.
What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.
It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.
So, apparently, the Nassau County (New York) Police have a “joint terrorism task force”, and they can monitor residents’ web searches in more or less real time. And they paid a visit to a family that had searched for pressure cookers and backpacks online, as well as having revealed interest in news about the Boston bombing. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to go telling everyone that law enforcement is monitoring the contents of web activity. Aside from the fact that the monitoring itself is probably illegal, revealing operational capabilities tends to get people stranded in the holding area of foreign airports, where Americans get stabbed in the back. And it doesn’t matter what your motivations were for revealing the information. (Pressure cookers? Really? The whole reason for using pressure cookers to make bombs is that there are millions of them around, a very large fraction of which will likely never be used to kill or maim civilians. And backpacks.)
The next Edward Snowden should avoid contacting a journalist directly. Instead, he can just tip off local law enforcement to an important national security journalist’s involvement in some nefarious plot, and then feed them with the appropriate keywords that he’s trying to communicate. He’ll probably get a medal.
The story, as reported by the aspiring terrorist herself, has some delightful details that sound like they came from Monty Python:
Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.
Again, I’m no expert on interrogation, but I’m just going to hazard a guess that “Can you make a bomb with that?” is not the sort of question that frequently leads to actionable intelligence.
The British press is legally somewhat more hemmed in than the US press, both by law (for instance, the and various arbitrary gag orders) and the threat of libel suits. (Fun fact: The truth defence against libel charges was eliminated in 1606 — at least as regards the sovereign, unpleasant claims are likely to be more damaging if they are true than if they are lies. An exception was made for “good motives” in 1792, but for the public interest in 1843. A more general substantial truth defence was reinstated last month.)
This leads us to this weekend’s blockbuster news. The Guardian has reported that the Mail on Sunday has reported
David Cameron has held crisis talks at Downing Street after being told of allegations of a sensational love affair which has potentially significant political implications for him.
For legal reasons, the Mail on Sunday cannot disclose the identities of the people involved or any details of the relationship – even its duration – other than that they are middle-aged figures. The affair has now concluded.
Hilarious! Like a Mad-Lib sketch for a political sex scandal. Details presumably to follow soon on Twitter.