German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier faced hard questions Thursday about Germany's role in the US-led "war on terror." The stakes are high for Steinmeier, who would like to become Germany's next chancellor.
Steinmeier insists Germany did not aid the US war effort
In parliamentary hearings on Thursday, Dec. 18, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier rebuffed accusations in connection to the mission of two agents of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND).
Steinmeier once again justified the mission of the two BND agents who, at the time, were based at the French embassy with diplomatic passports. He said that the BND and the German government wanted to be able to gather their own information and not be forced to rely on outside sources.
Steinmeier told the committee that at the time it was completely clear to all parties involved in the mission that the political guidelines stood and that Germany was not taking part in the war.
"There is no reason for me to believe that the wishes of the government were either knowingly or unknowingly violated," he added.
Steinmeier was politically responsible for the German Foreign Intelligence Agency during the launch of war in Iraq
Germany, traditionally a strong US ally, came out strongly against the invasion of Iraq. Yet in the five years since the war in Iraq started, Berlin has been criticized for becoming covertly involved in the US fight against Islamist extremists.
There have been accusations that Germany's intelligence services were aware of CIA kidnappings and prisoner renditions. Most recently, a top retired US military officer said that the United States relied on German intelligence during its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Due to his role as chief of staff for then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Steinmeier was politically responsible for the German foreign intelligence agency, placing him at the center of the current accusations of aiding the US.
Many Germans have vocally opposed the war
This is the fifth time Steinmeier has been called before a parliamentary committee to testify about issues relating to Germany's participation in the US-led "war on terror." And the stakes for Steinmeier have never been higher.
The Social Democratic Party has chosen Steinmeier to run against current Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The CDU and SPD currently share power in an awkward coalition government. Both sides would like a decisive electoral victory next fall, which would allow them to ditch their current partners and form coalitions with other parties.
Steinmeier's party has made a campaign issue out of its opposition to the war in Iraq. It could be disastrous for Social Democrats if it now turns out that German spies were secretly funneling information to US counterparts to aid in the US invasion of Iraq.
Long list of questionable involvement
The German government has denied knowing about secret CIA flights
Steinmeier was first called to testify two years ago as part of a closed-door parliamentary enquiry into the kidnapping of Khaled el-Masri. The German-Lebanese man says he was imprisoned by US agents in December 2003 in Macedonia and tortured in Afghanistan before being released five months later. In Afghanistan, el-Masri says he was questioned by a man called "Sam" who spoke perfect German.
Steinmeier denied knowing anything about el-Masri's case until after he had been freed. At the time, Steinmeier admitted that "sometimes, difficult decisions were necessary." But he denied that anything was done illegally.
"That was true in the past," Steinmeier said at the time. "And I can promise you that it will also be true in the future."
Since then, there have been several other high-profile cases in which German citizens have claimed they have been kidnapped or tortured as part of US anti-terrorism efforts. Steinmeier has also been questioned about Germany's involvement in so-called rendition flights, in which the CIA secretly transported people to countries for interrogation where they were possibly tortured.
Steinmeier will face tough questions
Khaled el-Masri claims claims he was tortured
The committee was never able to determine whether or not Germany knew about the el-Masri kidnapping or any of the other cases. Until now, the German foreign minister has not experienced any political backlash from the various cases. But that current round of questioning could prove to be the most challenging for Steinmeier as he has to clarify the role of two German spies during the Iraq war.
Earlier this week, retired US General James Marks said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine that information provided by German Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) spies stationed in Baghdad was extremely important, detailed and useful to the United States.
"Reports on the defensive positions in and around Baghdad and the location of troops and weapons were important," Marks told the magazine. "We trusted information from Germany more than from the CIA."
The agents sent approximately 130 reports to their commanders in Germany and appeared to be aware their intelligence was being forwarded to the Americans, according to the Spiegel report.
That news has outraged other politicians.
"He did not take adequate measures ensure that important information from Baghdad would not be forwarded to the US headquarters," said Hans-Christian Stroebele of the Green party.
Officials in Berlin continue to maintain that Germany was not involved in the fighting of the Iraq war.
"What Foreign Minster Steinmeier has been saying from the beginning stands: Germany had good reason to be against the Iraq war and for that reason was not involved in combat operations," foreign ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said.
Was Germany able to completely avoid becoming involved?
Steinmeier has defended himself by saying that the BND did not provide "active support of combat operations," but that the BND did work to "avoid an embassy or hospital from being bombed, which has nothing to do with double standards but with saving innocent people's lives."
The SPD has signaled that it will stand behind Steinmeier.
Thomas Oppermann, who is a member of the SPD and chairs the parliamentary committee overseeing intelligence issues, said that the interview with General Marks was "manipulated." Marks has also been invited to testify before the committee.