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Government postpones talks on future of under-fire spy chief

September 13, 2018

Hans-Georg Maassen, president of Germany's domestic intelligence service, allegedly passed on sensitive data from a report to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The spy chief has already faced calls to resign.

Hans-Georg Maassen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Dietze

The relationship between Germany's domestic spy chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) came under renewed scrutiny on Thursday, when it was revealed that the head of the domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), had passed on information from his yearly report to the far-right populist party ahead of its publication.

AfD Bundestag member Stephan Brandner confirmed to public broadcaster ARD that Maassen had given him "numbers from the report" at a personal meeting on June 13, five weeks before it was released.

"We talked about different figures that are in there," Brandner told ARD, including the number of Islamist extremists in the country. The BfV is tasked with tracking extremist groups inside Germany and determining whether they represent a danger, and brings out a report on its findings every summer.

Maassen has already faced intense pressure after an interview in which he questioned whether videos showing far-right violence in Chemnitz were authentic, directly contradicting Chancellor Angela Merkel's statements.

Even before Thursday's revelation, opposition parties had called on Maassen to resign over suspicions that he harbors right-wing sympathies and has a too-close relationship with the AfD. But until now he has been backed by his boss, conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

In a speech to the Bundestag on Thursday morning, Seehofer reiterated his support for the BfV president, and it now appears that Maassen's future could become a new crisis point for Merkel's government: Merkel, Seehofer, and Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles held a special crisis meeting to discuss the issue. The group said that any decision on Maassen's future would not be made before next Tuesday.

Routine information

Maassen quickly rejected any wrongdoing. In a statement to DW, the BfV press office said he had received "express instructions" from the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the BfV, to speak to parliamentarians from all political parties, and to inform them regularly about potential national security threats.

"The [ARD report] gives the impression that information or documents were passed on without a legal foundation," the statement said. "This is of course not the case." The BfV press office would not comment on the exact content of the conversation with Brandner, on the grounds that these conversations are confidential. 

The DPA news agency reported on Thursday that Maassen had had all of 237 personal conversations with politicians since he took over the post in 2012, only five of which had been with members of the AfD. The party, however, was only formed in 2013 and only entered the Bundestag after the last election in 2017.

Nevertheless, the political fallout from the revelation could still threaten the spy chief, especially in light of his contentious interview with Bild newspaper, in which he cast doubt on evidence of migrants being threatened on the streets of Chemnitz. Such doubts were also shared by the AfD.

Read moreLessons from Chemnitz: Eastern Germany's right-wing protesters awash in anxiety

Time to go?

Even voices from the governing parties have joined in calls for Maassen's dismissal. Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), junior partner in Angela Merkel's governing coalition, tweeted on Thursday afternoon that, "for the SPD leadership it is completely clear that Maassen must go. Merkel must act now."

Konstantin von Notz, interior policy spokesman for the opposition Green party, took a more nuanced view. While acknowledging that the meeting between Brandner and Maassen was unusual, the revelation that he may have passed on figures about Islamists was less interesting than the fact that the pair had apparently discussed the BfV's budget.

"This is secret, and can only be discussed among very few Bundestag members in the parliament's confidential committee," he told DW. 

Read more: Migration 'mother of all political problems,' says German interior minister

The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) has also made its mind up about Maassen. The party's interior policy spokesman, Konstantin Kuhle, told DPA on Thursday that the BfV head was "not neutral" about the AfD, and thus had to go, because of the "general impression after the events of the last few weeks and months."

Merkel condemns xenophobia

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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