Horst Herold: putting away data to put away terrorists

If he were the protagonist in a novel, he'd be a George Smiley by John Le Carre -- or else a Faust by Goethe. Friends see the former, foes the latter, in Horst Herold, the scholarly crusader for a computerized, impersonalized science of combatting and preventing crime.

Dr. Herold's success as president of the Federal Criminal Office (BKA) from 1971 through 1981 is impressive. Virtually singlehandedly he brought European crime-busting (and terror-busting) into the modern age. He squirreled away every conceivable clue about drug runners' and terrorists' cars, gun magazines, explosive chemicals, electricity bills, and toothpaste in his giant PIOS (persons-institutions-objects-things) computer. Hehad this information instantly available for both West German and foreign police whenever any terrorist violence broke out in Europe. He further programmed his computer to sort the mass of material into logistical trails and parallels that a team of detectives thumbing through card files could never have the time to deduce.

Not content with this, Dr. Herold also encouraged his specialists to pioneer methods of computer recording and scanning of fingerprints, voice and handwriting identification, and quick machine drawing of police sketches from witnesses' descriptions.

Along the way, BKA evidence brought the arrest and conviction of nearly 600 West German terrorists or criminal supporters. BKA leads also snared German terrorists in such places as Paris, London, and Sydney, and on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. Significantly, BKA evidence also has consistently cleared half of the initial suspects in cases of terrorist violence.

Since 1977 there has been no assassination or abduction of a major national political or business leader in West Germany. Moreover, the number of deaths of drug addicts has dropped from 623 in 1979 to 494 in 1980 to fewer than 400 in 1981.

Despite these successes, Herold's opponents have not been limited to those terrorists who repeatedly put him near the top of their hit lists. Less lethal adversaries of Herold's devotion to a clinical technology of crime have included outspoken civil libertarians as well as conservatives who feared that Herold's theories would lead to some kind of social engineering.

Some critics see in Herold's system a massive invasion of privacy, a Big Brother network of surveillance that would smother ordinary citizens. They cite examples of people who once wrote a letter to someone who was later convicted as a terrorist - letter-writers who were registered in the omnivorous PIOS recording of terrorist environments and supporters.

In this clash over individual rights lies plenty of irony for any would-be John Le Carre, for Dr. Herold is a convinced Social Democrat, as dedicated to establishing innocence as guilt. His quest for the ultimate laboratory proof of guilt without need of human witnesses aims not only at pinpointing tesrorists and protecting democratic society against them, but also at acquitting innocent victims of the all-too-frequent error of mistaken identity. And his own subtle exploration of the psychology of terrorists has made him argue with more traditional police forces in favor of granting amnesty to ex-terrorists who say they have reformed.

In an interview just after his retirement last year in the apartment he lived in deep inside BKA headquarters, Dr. Herold disgussed the issues raised by his innovations.

Yes, he acknowledged, there could be police-state risks in the type of police instruments he advocates. That's why the instrument of the police must be stringently and democratically controlled. This control should probably be shared, and not at the disposal of one man (such as the BKA president). There must be some ''transparency,'' or access by citizens to their own police records. Access by others, including police, must be limited. (Some 30 West German officials currently have authorized access to PIOS data banks.)

BKA records should not be married with records of the intelligence agency or the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (responsible for domestic counterintelligence and political extremism), Herold continued. He has, however, long advocated turning over state police records of the 10 German states - including records of acquitted defendants - to the fedural BKA's central computer. As an additional safeguard, Herold added, there must be automatic destruction of noncrucial computerized information after a certain time lapse.

Herold believes technology can help rather than hinder the necessary control of police information gathering. ''Technology is calculable,'' he asserted. ''What is calculable is sure. Sureness of the law is an element of justice. To this extent there is a direct, immediate connection between technology and justice. But . . . not everyone gives me credit for this. . . . In the ent I was brought down because I couldn't make believable the concept of building an apparatus here that would serve justice. People imputed to me the building of a police-state apparatus.'' (Herold's retirement came early, for reasons ofhealth. It came after some spectacular disputes on civil-rights issues between Herold and Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, however.)

In the resistance to technology in general and its use in fighting crime in particular, Herold sees a new, romantic desire for a return to a simpler era. ''It's the wish for a place of safety, for more warmth. People feel technology is cold and hostile to mankind. What is noteworthy is that such a conservative position has become tPe revolutionary position today.''

Herold vigorously contests the charge that his computer records are indiscriminate. There may be fingerprints of 2 million people registered -- but only in connection with criminal acts, and only in connection with those criminal acts in which fingerprints might be significant evidence -- swindlers' whorls are not recorded, for example. Non-fingerprint information in the BKA would concern ''at most'' 250,000 people.

Furthermore, if any international data bank were set up of the sort Herold has been advocating unsuccessfully, he would incorporate in it only material evidence (such as stolen cars, drug impurities analyses, and the like), and not personal information. He would thus limit it partly because of the impossibility of ever reconciling widely varying national data protection laws.

In developing his thesis Herold took two examples that are frequently cited by his critics. The first was the registration of all 20- to 25-year-old travelers on the night trains to Paris for some months after the abduction of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer in 1977. The second was the scrutinizing of Frankfurt renters who paid their utilities bills in cash.

The first tactic was followed after a letter giving kidnappers' demands was mailed by a courier from the Gare du Nord in Paris. By sifting through the 3,000 names that came up, the BKA did figure out who the courier was, Herold said. The names and information on all the others were destroyed within four months, he adled.

On the utilities bills, he explained that the BKA got a computerized list of all Frankfurt customers who paid in untraceable cash. The computer checked this list against a list of all those registered with the police as residents (as is legally required), then against a list of those registered as vehicle owners.

The calculation was thah Rolf Heissler, one of the ''most wanted'' terrorist suspects, was living in Frankfurt but was deliberately leaving no trails behind him -- and would therefore show up in the final list of 1,000 people who were unregistered anywhere except in the electricity accounts. He was -- and was captured as a result of the exercise.

''This is a completely clinical form that doesn't injure any citizen,'' asserted Herold. He contrasted this method with the use of traditional, much more intrusive methods in a Canterbury, England, police search among the thousands of industrial workers over 5 feet, 9 inches tall. Those inquiries ''disturbed innocent persons in the area much more than our clinical method of investigation does,'' he concluded.

Herold also disputed the familiar complaint about innocent letter writers to terrorists getting black marks in his PIOS. He noted that the comprehensive PIOS system is limited to cases of terrorism and drugs and is not a system for amassing general suspicion. He argued further that any letter writer ''is recorded as having written a letter. That doesn't mean anything, at least at first. When this person then comes up in other connections -- for example, in a demonstration in which there is violence - then you have to ask, 'Well, isn't he a dangerous man?' Then when other things come up, too, he will be taken out of the PIOS system and transferred to a system of suspects.''

In his professional lifetime Herold has written more than 200 publications on such specialized areas as data processing, crime statistics, criminal technology , police organization, domestic and international police cooperation, anti-terrorist and anti-drug measures, research and prevention, the role of police in society, and ''criminal geography.'' The latter investigation led him, as police chief of Nuremberg, to a radical reassignment of police to high-crime areas in the city.

Herold's life dream was to carry his analysis of crime after the fact to crime before the fact to diagnose and recommend ways to eliminate the causes of crime. His sharpest critics charged him with trying, in this endeavor, to ''X-ray people.'' Herold's retort was that he only wanted to ''X-ray society.''

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