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The detective who 'saw the dark side of society'

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The detective who 'saw the dark side of society'
Jörg Ziercke. Photo: DPA
12:08 CET+01:00
Head of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) Jörg Ziercke hung up his handcuffs this week after an epic ten-year tenure in one of the toughest jobs in Germany. But he faces one last challenge to his robust record as he leaves office.

From terror networks to child pornography rings, Jörg Ziercke, 67, has dealt with the most harrowing aspects of criminality in the modern age during a career spanning almost half a century.

“I have seen the dark side of society,” the veteran detective told Spiegel Online before he stepped down from the post on Wednesday. 

Hailing from the northern city of Lübeck, Ziercke rose through the police and state interior ministry ranks since the late 1960s until he was appointed to head the BKA in 2004, where he served until his retirement. 

Situated between serious crime and the dictates and whims of high government, he earned many accolades over the years, from glib references to him as the 'Marathon Man' to the detective whose team helped foiled 10 of 11 terrorist attacks planned to take place on German soil.

Lapses at the helm

The one that slipped through the net was the fatal shooting of two US soldiers at Frankfurt airport in 2011 by Arid Uka, an Albanian from Kosovo.

But Ziercke is also haunted by some serious lapses during his decade at the helm, notably the prolonged failure to apprehend the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

The neo-Nazi cell was only identified in 2011 after carrying out bombings and serial murders against Germans of foreign origin, mainly Turkish immigrants, with impunity between 2000 and 2007. 

A major reason that the group was not detected was the presumption by authorities that the killings were part of ethnic gang warfare rather than the work of a home-grown extremist group. 

“That hurts,” Ziercke said, adding that the BKA at the time “did not believe it was possible that a group could shoot people out of such an inhuman and bizarre motivation." Now though, "We cannot regard anything as being impossible.”

Equally abhorrent is the growing threat of child pornography and its distribution, an area that threw up some of his greatest challenges – and ultimately left the heaviest question mark on a distinguished career. 

Monitoring stalwart

Ziercke pressed for years for changes to the law that would allow authorities to carry out secret searches of online communications to intercept and block content of an illegal nature, rather than just deleting it after it appears. 

This applied not just to child pornography but also images of other atrocities circulated via the internet.

To make his point, in 2007 he showed a working group of MPs a selection of the most disturbing content, from brutal abuse of minors to extreme sado-masochism to decapitations.

Legislative changes on internet access were finally effected under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s second government in 2011.

Last autumn Ziercke also reminded parliament of the need to monitor communications in modern detective work. Without this, some 70 percent of investigations against organized crime rings would not be possible, he stressed.

But 2011 was also the year Ziercke had to ward off allegations that he as BKA chief was an accomplice to murder. This followed a US drone strike in Pakistan the previous year in which a German-born insurgent suspect was killed. 

Grounds for the charges were previous statements by Ziercke that the organization had furnished foreign intelligence partners with information about travel by suspected extremists. The charges brought against Ziercke by a senior regional prosecutor were later thrown out by higher courts.

As for the scale of the threat of extremism, he remains adamant that “We will have our hands full with Islamist terrorism for a long time yet as it becomes globalized.”

The final challenge

His work is not yet over, though, even after his retirement. Ziercke still has to testify before a parliamentary committee in the ongoing child pornography case against former Social Democratic Party (SPD) lawmaker Sebastian Edathy.

Edathy will stand trial in February for allegedly downloading child pornography onto his parliamentary work computer. 

The BKA, meanwhile, has been accused of suppressing the matter and even warning Edathy of the investigations. Until the case is resolved, Ziercke will retain an office in the BKA to prepare his testimony.

And while he clears his desk for retirement, Ziercke is not budging an inch on his final case: “The BKA has done nothing wrong in these proceedings,” he told Spiegel.

Meanwhile, colleagues saluted his long service and hard necked-defence of what he believes is right and necessary. This included butting heads with ministers over his refusal to move the BKA headquarters to Berlin from Wiesbaden, where it still remains.

“Ziercke was never a person to stay in the background,” said Andy Neumann, chairman of the BKA's union, the Federation of German Detectives (BDK).

“He fought for his convictions and if necessary stood up to those whose shoes – at least formally – were bigger than his own.”

In line to try and fill those shoes is Holger Münch, a 53-year-old state councillor from Bremen who will succeed him in December.

But even with his extensive skills of detection, Ziercke abdicates judgement about whether his long years have taken their toll on him personally.

“I have been in police service for 47 years and my wife has observed no change in me as a human being,” he says.

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