German opposition parties have called for a formal parliamentary probe into the country's foreign intelligence services (BND) affair. But what can the BND divulge and what rights does the inquiry committee even have?
How much can the BND keep secret?
Allegations that the German foreign intelligence services (BND) shared intelligence with the United States during the Iraq war cast doubt on former chancellor Gerhard Schröder's highly popular opposition to the invasion.
The explosive topic raises the question, though, as to what extent BND employees are even allowed to testify before the committee. And, do they have to?
At the same time, it's questionable whether a parliamentary inquiry into this issue is even necessary. After all, the parliamentary control board PKG already holds a controlling function over the various intelligence services.
The rights a n d respo n sibilities of a n i n quiry committee
An inquiry committee is a parliamentary information and control board. Its main task is reviewing alleged abuses in the government and administration or political misconduct.
According to the constitution, it can be called up if one-quarter of the Bundestag are in favor of one. With the current parliamentary distribution, the three opposition factions have the possibility to call for such an inquiry committee to clear up the BND-Iraq affair. The committee's makeup is determined according to the factions' respective sizes.
How much does Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier know?
Should an inquiry committee be called, it has the right to meet in closed sessions. Legally, witnesses are obligated to appear before the committee if summoned to do so. This is also the case for BND staff -- in principle. Even if no criminal measures can be taken due to the committee's conclusions, it is legally possible to order a compulsory showing of witnesses.
However, this obligation does not apply to the BND. The intelligence service can retain witnesses under reference to national security interests, said Bärbel Schubert, press officer for the Bundestag. It is legally unclear what subsequently happens in such cases. It is certain, though, that the inquiry committee can only deliberate on the justification for the witness withholding, but cannot object to the BND's decision.
BND a n d co n trol boards n eed each other
Ultimately, the BND decides what could endanger national security, not the parliamentary committee. Even if BND employees would testify, the Bundestag would not have to be informed of all the details.
Attorney Alexander Hirsch, author of the book "The Control of the Intelligence Services," said that, on the one hand, the BND's secrecy was justified. On the other hand, the parliament had the right to be informed. Hirsch said that both the control boards and the BND needed each other and that an interdependency between the two existed.
Hirsch said that the BND would soon have a problem with public acceptance if it did not allow itself to be controlled and just sparked negative headlines. That is why the BND was dependent on control.
"If the BND forbid its staff from testifying, this would also have informative value, even if it wouldn't satisfy the opposition," said Hirsch. The BND should therefore consider its actions carefully, he said.
Usi n g i n quiries for political aims
The parliamentary committee is considered to be the strongest weapon of the opposition. That the opposition is demanding both a transparent parliamentary control board, even though it is subject to secrecy, as well as calling for an inquiry committee certainly has other reasons.
Hirsch said that the inquiry committee had deviated from its actual purpose and is used by the opposition for campaign objectives.
Already in 1995, BND actions led to a parliamentary inquiry. At the time, it was leaked that the successful arrest of a Columbian plutonium dealer at the Munich airport in August 1994 had been staged. The BND, the Bavarian Criminal Police Office and the Bavarian judiciary system were all involved.
The arrest was aimed to demonstrate a politically useful manhunt in the run-up to Bavarian and federal elections. At the time, the BND police informer Rafael Ferreras Fernandez surprisingly testified before the so-called plutonium inquiry committee.