While celebrating its 50th anniversary, Germany's foreign intelligence agency was distracted by the start of an inquiry into its role in the Iraq war. Chancellor Angela Merkel came to the body's defense.
Chancellor Merkel defended the BND's role on its 50th anniversary
As far as birthday celebrations go, it was a rather somber affair. Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), marked its 50th anniversary Thursday, but there were few birthday celebrations as members of the German parliament presented the agency with the dubious gift of a sensitive inquiry into the role of German spies in the Iraq war.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, attending the birthday bash in Berlin, attempted to keep spirits up by defending the BND and championing the continuance of security cooperation with the United States.
"I wish for only one thing from the investigation: that the need for the intelligence work of the security services should in no way be brought into question," Merkel said in a speech. Members of the BND would have been excused for hoping that this wish was not the one she made while blowing out any candles in their honor. If speaking it aloud negates the wish then the agency is in for a hard time.
Experts believe that the BND will suffer regardless; a view shared by the agency's top brass. Spy chief Ernst Uhrlau told reporters at the anniversary event that the investigation had placed his agency in a "very difficult situation."
Spotlight to fall o n Iraq role a n d CIA missio n s i n Europe
The inquiry, which started Thursday after being forced by the opposition against the wishes of the government, is expected to run for months. It could not only damage the trust of foreign partners in Germany's security services but also stir anti-American feeling by keeping the Iraq war in the public spotlight.
Merkel moved to prevent that happening by adding in her speech that intelligence cooperation with Washington would remain "not only important but necessary" in the future.
However, such resolve may ultimately prove to be foolishly misplaced as the Council of Europe human rights forum continues to investigate CIA flights and allegations that the US agency ran secret prisons in Europe with collusion from EU member states.
The inquiry is also expected to investigate the possibility that the CIA used Germany as a staging post for secret flights carrying terrorist suspects between countries.
Former Schröder aide Stei n meier to be summo n ed
The chancellor herself is not threatened by the investigation into the BND's involvement in Iraq as she was not in office at the time. Nut Social Democrats in her cabinet, specifically Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, could be embarrassed by revelations.
Steinmeier was former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief-of-staff when German spies in Baghdad allegedly helped the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was responsible for the security services at the time. Schröder was strongly critical of the war in public and his stance helped to secure the 2002 general election.
Steinmeier's proximity to the case could be damaging
If it is proved that the Germans passed on information to the Americans in regard to targets for military strikes, it would be extremely damaging for Steinmeier -- who is expected to have to testify. It would also have a knock-on, albeit indirect, effect on Merkel and her government.
Gover n me n t challe n ges oppositio n to fi n d evide n ce
The government has admitted that the BND assisted the US military in providing information on the police and army presence in Baghdad, but that has denied that BND agents helped to guide US bombers to their targets. SPD lawmaker Thomas Oppermann said his party wanted full transparency.
"We have nothing to hide," he told reporters.
Oppermann added that he believed the affair had largely been dealt with, and challenged the opposition to show there were still questions that needed answering.
"An issue concerning the security services has probably never been so thoroughly cleared up in a democratic country," he said. "We believe the government has nothing worthy of criticism that it needs to keep secret."
Opposition parliamentarians are prepared to go to court if necessary to have key papers released and secret documents disclosed.