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Maaßen profile: The curious case of the spy who gave too much away

For a spymaster, Hans-Georg Maaßen seemed unusually receptive to the media - while secret agents typically work in the shadows, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency gave more interviews than any of this predecessors.

Maaßen profile: The curious case of the spy who gave too much away
Hans-Georg Maaßen leaving the Bundestag following a meeting on September 12th. Photo: DPA

As it turned out, it was an interview with Germany's best-selling daily Bild that cost the 55-year-old his job.

But the saga doesn't end there, as Maaßen will now take up a position as state secretary in the Interior Ministry – effectively a promotion as Zeit reports that he will earn €2,580 more per month in the new job.

After anti-migrant protests rocked the eastern city of Chemnitz in late August, Merkel firmly condemned a “hunt against foreigners” backed by videos circulating on social media, but Maaßen challenged the authenticity of at least one of the videos.

For critics, Maaßen's claim played into the hands of the far-right, such as the AfD party, which immediately seized on the spy chief's assessment to blast Merkel and mainstream media for maligning it and other like-minded protesters.

As pressure mounted on him to prove the video was a fake, Maaßen denied questioning its authenticity and said his quarrel was with how the original post on Twitter had oversold it as a “hunt against people” which he thought was intended to inflame tensions.

But the uproar raised questions over Maaßen 's neutrality, particularly as he has made no secret of his opposition to Merkel's liberal refugee policy that has allowed in more than a million asylum seekers since 2015.

It also made him a hero of right-wing extremists claiming Maaßen was a maverick with the courage to criticize Merkel, now in her 13th year as chancellor.

Legal expertise 

Married to a linguist from Japan, Maaßen was born in Mönchengladbach, in North Rhine-Westphalia, close to the Dutch border.

The man with the round gold-rim glasses who favours three-piece suits is a trained lawyer who wrote a thesis on “the legal status of the asylum seeker in international law”.

He was heading the interior ministry's counter-terrorism team when the US was ready to free Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen and German resident, from Guantanamo Bay after finding that accusations against him were groundless.

Berlin was reluctant to take Kurnaz back, and Maaßen at the time found the legal justification to bolster Germany's case as he argued successfully that the Turkish man had lost his residency rights because he had been away for more than six months from Germany – although this was due to Kurnaz's imprisonment.

Maaßen took over in 2012 as chief of Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BvF) in the aftermath of a devastating neo-Nazi cell scandal.

The agency's reputation was in tatters after it was revealed it shredded files related to suspects in the NSU (National Socialist Underground) cell that carried out a series of racist murders.

Maaßen said he felt like the “city building director of Cologne after World War II” as he took the helm.

Over the last six years, Maaßen  turned the agency back into a respectable intelligence institution that politicians and the media turn to for assessments on risks for Germany.

With an eye on the Islamist threat, he viewed skeptically Merkel's decision in 2015 to keep Germany's borders open to asylum seekers.

He had warned as early as September 2015 that Islamists may recruit asylum seekers under the cover of providing humanitarian assistance.

But he came under intense pressure following a terror attack at a Berlin Christmas market in 2016 when Tunisian failed asylum applicant Anis Amri rammed a truck into crowds.

According to media reports, Maaßen  wrongly claimed his service had no agent in Amri's circles, even though it had a source at a mosque the Tunisian frequented.

Contacts with the AfD 

But it is his handling of the far-right AfD party that has proved most controversial.

Despite repeated calls for the BfV to formally place the AfD under surveillance, Maaßen  has refused to do so.

A former AfD member has also accused him of having met repeatedly with the party's leaders to give advice on how to avoid being placed under surveillance – an allegation Maaßen and the far-right group have denied.

AfD leader Alexander Gauland told journalists this week he had three conversations with Maaßen about “overall security evaluations”. Maaßen did not give him advice, he added.

On Thursday,an AfD MP revealed that Maaßen  gave him unpublished official data. The BfV rejected the claim.

For critics, the allegations made Maaßen 's position untenable.

Heribert Prantl of the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung noted that “among the worst things that can happen to a top domestic intelligence officer is for him to be accused of sympathy for a far-right party”.

New position

Despite the controversy, Maaßen has in fact landed on his feet. In a statement released late on Tuesday, the German government wrote: “The Office of the President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution will be re-filled.

“In future Mr. Maaßen will become a state secretary in the Interior Ministry. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has high regard for Mr. Maaßen's abilities on questions of domestic security, but he will not be responsible for the BfV within the ministry.”

There has already been some criticizm over the move by commentators who have questioned how Maaßen has been given this job despite the reservations over his behaviour.

However, it remains to be seen if Maaßen will continue to face intense scrutiny – and who will fill his shoes as top spy. 

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READER INSIGHTS

‘Lack of transparency’: What it’s like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

Getting permanent residency can be a great way to secure your rights in Germany - but what's it like going through the application process? The Local spoke to readers about their experiences.

'Lack of transparency': What it's like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

For non-EU citizens living in Germany, permanent residence is often the go-to status when they decide to build a life here. For years, there have been strict rules that make it difficult to obtain dual nationality, so those who aren’t keen on losing their old citizenship can secure their rights by becoming permanent residents instead.

On the Make it in Germany website – set up by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – information in English states that most applicants simply need to fulfil a short list of requirements. They need to prove they know German, are well integrated, have a secure livelihood, and have held another residence permit for at least five years.

But how are these rules applied in practice, and how long does it take to switch from a temporary visa to permanent residence?

When The Local spoke to readers about their applications, we found hugely varied experiences for people on different types of visa and in different parts of the country.

“The requirements for permanent residency are clearly defined in the law,” said 27-year-old Manpreet J., who’s originally from India. “What is not defined is how to prove that they are met. This is where the problem begins.”

According to Manpreet, there are even different definitions of a secure livelihood in different regions. In Aachen, for example, a temporary work contract wouldn’t be enough to fulfil this requirement, while just 30km away in Heinsberg, it would.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

‘Bring everything you can think of’

Jaton’ West, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Berlin, found the criteria for accepting applications similarly inscrutable.

“We applied twice,” She told The Local. “The first time they only renewed our visa – no explanation as to why. We reapplied when it expired and were granted it. Seems like it’s a crapshoot and just depends on the whim of the person processing your application.”

For Jonathan in Nuremberg, the whole process was marked by a “lack of transparency” – starting with the fact that there was no available information, in English or German, about what documents would be needed during the process.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners' Office.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners’ Office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Six weeks after sending in his application for permanent residency, his local Foreigner’s Office emailed him to inform him that he would need 10 additional documents – including a German language test and integration test that he didn’t know he’d have to take.

With his residence permit due to expire in a matter of weeks, he was left with no time at all to find hard copies of all the other documents, let alone manage the 14-week turnaround for booking and receiving results for the tests. 

“The frustration is that I could have taken these tests anytime in the past year, if I had known that I needed them,” he said.

Düsseldorf resident Dmitry, 33, also received incomplete information about the documents he needed to provide – both on the website of his local Foreigner’s Office and in an email he was sent.

“As far as I recall, no list mentioned bringing the work contract, and the contract for the flat was also required. Finally, I had to provide them translations of my degrees, despite already having provided them for my Blue Card,” he said. “In the end, it’s worth bringing everything a person can think of.”

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is my British residency title the same as permanent residency in Germany?

‘Smoother than expected’ 

For the vast majority of respondents, the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the application was the hardest thing about securing permanent residency.

Others said they had found it tricky to brush up their German skills to meet the B1 language requirement.

However, a number of people said they been pleasantly surprised by how relaxed their case workers had been and how simple the process was.

This was the case for 32 year-old Angela, who moved to Berlin from Colombia. 

“I prepared a lot of documents, but in the end all they checked was my salary and that I had contributed to the pension fund and Krankenkasse (health insurance),” she told us. “I don’t know why it was so easy for me – my intuition tells me higher income people have it easier.” 

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill.

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | arifoto UG

For 39 year-old Shila, who lives in Mainz, the experience of applying for permanent residency was similarly hassle-free. After emailing the Landesamt and her local case worker, she was given an appointment and a list of documents to bring with her. 

Despite the fact that she wasn’t able to supply a language certificate, the application was a success – and her case worker even offered to talk to her in English.

“It was in 2021 in the middle of lockdown, but it was a very positive surprise to me after hearing all the bad experiences on Facebook groups,” Shila said.

The huge variation in experiences even extended to the amount of time it took for permanent residence to be granted.

While some lucky applicants managed to complete the whole thing within a month, others have waited as long as a year and a half – and in some cases are still waiting for an outcome. 

Easier with a Blue Card

Among those respondents who had an easier time, many told us they had originally come to Germany on a Blue Card – a special EU visa for skilled workers on high incomes.

Blue Card holders with basic German language skills are able to receive permanent residency after living in the country for just 33 months. Meanwhile, those with slightly more advanced skills (B1) can secure their permanent status after just 21 months.

Berlin resident Steven, 50, told us he was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’d only need an A1 language certificate, thanks to the fact that he’d been living in Germany on a Blue Card.

Others took advantage of the fast-tracked option and secured their B1 certificate in order to get a permanent residence permit after less than two years.

Adi Singh, 33, said getting a hold of permanent residence in Munich had been an incredibly smooth process – largely because he’d applied through his employer.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for citizenship or permanent residency?

With his B1 language skills, Adi was able to apply after just 21 months, and he received his card within just six months.

“I had one in-person appointment at the KVR close to the approval stage, but that was quick and short,” he said. “But they make it a point to speak to you in German, likely to establish that B1 level.”

Compared to the experience of applying for his Blue Card himself, Adi said applying via his employer had helped him avoid bureaucratic issues.

“I was fortunate to do it through my firm, and I would recommend that if your company does not apply for it for you, it is a good idea to hire an immigration firm that will do the process,” he advised. “It’s worth the time and energy saved.”

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