Letter from Berlin: German Spy Revelations Put Steinmeier on the Defensive
With revelations continuing to pour in about the importance of German intelligence during the US invasion of Iraq, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is on the defensive. On Wednesday, General Tommy Franks added his praise for the German spies in Baghdad.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is not having a good week. And on Thursday, it promises to get even worse. Steinmeier is scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee currently investigating the extent to which German intelligence agents assisted the US military during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Steinmeier has consistently suggested that German agents in Baghdad prior to "Operation Iraqi Freedom" were given instructions that "precluded active support of combat operations."
But a weekend report in SPIEGEL, citing interviews with 20 current or former US military officers, indicates that those instructions may not have been followed. Many of the military men say that information from the German agents was important and highly valued -- and that it also played a role in the planning of some parts of the invasion. As a result of the weekend report, Steinmeier's questioners on Thursday have said they intend to question the foreign minister much more aggressively.
Fresh comments from US military personnel have raised questions as to how much German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier knew about German intelligence activity in Iraq prior to the US invasion.
"It would be a huge mistake to underestimate the value of information provided by the Germans," Franks told SPIEGEL. "These guys were invaluable."
The "guys" Franks refers to are two agents from Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the country's foreign intelligence agency, who were stationed in Baghdad in the run up to the US-led invasion in March 2003. Details of the German spy mission began to leak out in 2006. It didn't take long for a low-level political scandal to begin simmering in Berlin. The German government in power when the Iraq War began was officially opposed to the invasion. Indeed, then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder won re-election in 2002 partially as a result of his strident, anti-war position. The existence of a German spy mission in Baghdad casts doubt on the sincerity of the Schröder position.
Which puts Steinmeier in an especially tough spot. Back in 2002, he was Chancellor Schröder's chief of staff and was also the chancellery's go-between with the BND. If anyone in the cabinet knew exactly what German agents in Iraq were up to, it was Steinmeier. Next year, he will be running against incumbent Angela Merkel as chancellor candidate with the Social Democrats. Should it be proven that Steinmeier has been less than forthright about the BND contribution to the Iraq invasion, it could seriously harm his credibility going into the 2009 campaign.
As a result of the US military comments, conservatives in Germany have adopted a much more aggressive tone this week. Norbert Röttgen, a senior member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), said that Steinmeier's credibility was at stake. He said that CDU members of the investigative committee will pose tough questions to the foreign minister on Thursday.
The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, was more aggressive. Party General Secretary Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg said "the incriminating evidence is so great that Steinmeier must provide a forthright clarification. The BND affair hangs like a millstone around Steinmeier's neck."
Other parties are also critical of Steinmeier. Max Stadler, who is a member of the investigative committee for the business friendly Free Democrats, says that the evidence already presented shows that Germany "played an active role in the Iraq War." Green Party member Hans-Christian Ströbele has called Steinmeier's claim that the spy mission was a humanitarian one "absolute nonsense." (The Green Party was the junior partner in Schröder's governing coalition; then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is from the Greens and will also provide testimony to the investigative committee.)
Steinmeier's Social Democrats are on the defensive. Michael Hartmann, the lead SPD member on the investigative committee, has called the US military quotes cited in SPIEGEL "crass military blather." Another leading SPD member, Thomas Oppermann, said that comments by General James Marks, who told SPIEGEL that the German agents were "heroes" and that they had helped save American lives, came from a "manipulated interview."
Important Information for Tactical Planning
It will likely end up being a difficult position to maintain. Marks was in charge of pre-invasion reconnaissance in Iraq and told SPIEGEL that the information provided by the German agents was "invaluable" and that it was "detailed and reliable." The CIA also had agents in Iraq. But, said Marks, "we trusted the Germans more than we trusted the CIA."
The information from the two German agents in Baghdad was delivered directly to BND headquarters in Pullach, located just outside of Munich. From there some of it was sent on to the US military. The German reports were often toned down or reworded. But a number of military personnel working on pre-war planning and logistics recalled knowing of the reports and being familiar with their content.
Marks told SPIEGEL that the information from the reports also played a role in tactical decisions made by the US military. He says that German reports about the possibility that Iraqis were planning to destroy oil wells were critical in the US decision to move up the date of the invasion. He also said that information from the German agents regarding the strategies being employed by Iraqi forces to defend airports in the country led to the US cancelling a planned paratrooper attack on Baghdad's main airport.
"Anyone who claims that (the German) reports did not play a role for combat operations is living on another planet," says Colonel Carol Stewart, who was a member of the intelligence team under General Franks.
So far, the parliamentary investigative committee, which began in 2006 following initial -- and inaccurate -- indications that German agents had provided the US with bomb coordinates, has only questioned German politicians and officials in connection with the BND mission. Now, it seems likely that invitations will be extended overseas.
Should those invitations be accepted, 2009 might prove to be a difficult year for Steinmeier.
Reported by John Goetz, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark
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