Conflicting Statements: Drone Troubles Mount for Minister

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière rejected calls to resign on Monday over losses from the Euro Hawk drone project. But he admitted knowing about the problems sooner than he had indicated last week and now faces a parliamentary investigation.

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière after giving testimony to a parliamentary committee last Wednesday. Zoom
DPA

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière after giving testimony to a parliamentary committee last Wednesday.

Pressure mounted on German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière on Monday when opposition parties said they would convene a formal parliamentary committee of inquiry to investigate the massive loss of taxpayers' money resulting from the cancelled Euro Hawk surveillance drone program.

The center-left Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party agreed to set up a committee, thereby reaching the required minimum of a quarter of all parliamentary seats needed to enforce a formal inquiry, which will take place before the September general election.

The announcement came after de Maizière gave testimony to parliament's defense committee on Monday for the second time in less than a week -- and failed to provide satisfactory answers.

"As Mr. de Maizière is evidently not prepared to provide comprehensive answers voluntarily, only a committee of inquiry can perform this task," said SPD floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

De Maizière is facing mounting opposition calls to resign over the abandoned contract for surveillance drones that is estimated to have squandered over €500 million ($660 million) of taxpayers' money.

De Maizière, Chancellor Angela Merkel's former chief of staff and a loyal ally of hers, said last month that Germany was dropping the purchase of four Euro Hawk drones made by EADS and Northrop Grumman because it would cost too much to ensure they meet required flight safety standards.

A ministry paper written in February 2012 and seen by SPIEGEL said modifications needed for the drone to be allowed in German airspace would cost between €250 million and €600 million -- and would even then not guarantee a successful licensing process.

Despite the existence of that paper, which had been seen at the time by two state secretaries in the ministry, de Maizière insisted last week that he wasn't informed about the extent of the problems affecting the drones until May 13 this year.

'No Reason to Resign'

But even the truth of that statement, made to parliament's defense committee, has been called into question because it emerged last week that he had told journalists of Bavarian newspaper Donau Kurier on May 7 that he didn't expect the procurement of the drones to go ahead.

De Maizière has since admitted in an interview with Focus magazine published on Monday that he "had heard about the problems" before May 13. But he stressed that conversations in ministry corridors couldn't replace official information. "The orderly business of a ministry doesn't take place in the corridors."

Speaking to the defense committee on Monday, de Maizière admitted that he had received ministry documents about the Euro Hawk problems before the program was cancelled in May. He conceded that he should have been more forceful in seeking information about the difficulties, and should have done so sooner. But he insisted again that he had not misled parliament or the public, and that the decision to scrap the program had been correct. So there was "no reason to resign," he said.

Opposition politicians have said the government wasted some €680 million on the drone and accused de Maizière of withholding information about the project's risks and failing to stop it sooner.

Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary floor leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that de Maizière resignation was "just a question of time".

"A defense minister who doesn't tell the truth on such a crucial issue cannot remain in office any longer," he said.

Jürgen Trittin, the Green Party's candidate for chancellor, told Bild am Sonntag, "The minister is tying himself up in wild contradictions. ... He has lost the trust you need to hold this office, so he can't remain minister."

More significantly, members of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in Merkel's coalition, have started distancing themselves from de Maizière.

Wolfgang Kubicki, a member of the FDP's leadership, said it was irrelevant whether the minister was informed "in writing, verbally, electronically or per carrier pigeon" of the drone debacle. What mattered was that the minister had given the impression that he didn't know the extent of the problems until May 13. If this wasn't the case, Kubicki told public broadcaster ZDF, Maizière's actions would have been "untruthful."

The general secretary of the FDP, Patrick Döring, was also critical: "One should expect a federal minister to correctly gauge the political impact of such corridor rumors and to demand that his officials provide information as swiftly as possible."

Fresh Accusation

Meanwhile, SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned that the Defense Ministry withheld information on the drone from parliament last year. Responding to a question submitted by a Left Party member of parliament in June 2012, the ministry said the extent of additional costs resulting from the drone problems couldn't be estimated -- even though the ministry did in fact have an estimate at the time.

If de Maizière ends up having to resign over this, it will be a blow for Merkel less than four months ahead of the Sept. 22 general election, not just because he is a close and loyal ally of hers.

It would also cast doubt on her judgment following a string of embarrassing resignations of people she has backed. Her choice of president, Christian Wulff, had to step down last year following controversy over his acceptance of gifts from rich friends. And Education Minister Annette Schavan and de Maizière's predecessor as defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, quit after being accused of plagiarism in their doctoral theses.

With reporting by Matthias Gebauer

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