Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appeared before a parliamentary investigative committee to answer questions about the role of German intelligence in the invasion of Iraq. He called claims that Berlin helped the US "outlandish."
The parliamentary investigative committee had been meeting for hours by the time daylight began fading in the middle of the afternoon on Thursday in Berlin. But right at 3:24 p.m., Germany's normally unflappable Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier lost his temper. He had said a number of times throughout the day that his patience was growing thin. This time, though, he pounded loudly on the table.
Germany has been anxious to hear what Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had to say about German intelligence activities in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq.
Few were surprised by the display of frustration. Anticipation of Steinmeier's appearance before the committee has been growing all week -- ever since SPIEGEL published US military praise for the help provided by two German intelligence agents stationed in Baghdad in the run-up to the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, Steinmeier was chief of staff under then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who had staked his political reputation on his opposition to the war. Now, he is the Social Democrat candidate for the Chancellery in next year's elections. Should the investigative committee find that Germany assisted the US invasion, it could seriously harm Steinmeier's credibility.
All of which helps explain Steinmeier's vehement rejection of the new claims that German intelligence played an important role in the Iraq War. Repeatedly, he called the investigative committee "naïve" for believing that the new US military comments weren't politically motivated. He called US comments "ludicrous" and "outlandish." He said that the military praise of German intelligence was "poisoned."
The comments Steinmeier was referring to, though, are difficult to brush aside. General Tommy Franks, who led "Operation Iraqi Freedom," told SPIEGEL that "it would be a huge mistake to underestimate the value of information provided by the Germans. These guys were invaluable."
General James Marks, who was in charge of pre-invasion reconnaissance, told SPIEGEL that the two German agents from the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, were "heroes" who had helped save American lives. He said "we trusted the Germans more than we trusted the CIA."
Marc Garlasco, who was head of High Value Targeting at the Pentagon during the Iraq invasion, told SPIEGEL that "it is rewriting history to deny that the BND helped us in US military and combat operations during the war." He also said "German (human intelligence) was far more robust and ever present than any of the garbage we got from CIA sources. The Germans were reliable, professional military people."
In all, SPIEGEL spoke to more than 20 current and former members of the US armed forces. Not all of them were unmitigated supporters of President George W. Bush and his Iraq strategy, making it unlikely that they are all interested in now taking revenge on Germany for the Schröder government's anti-war position. Garlasco, for example, is now working for Human Rights Watch.
But the message from all of those interviewed was largely the same: The information provided by German intelligence just prior to and during the US invasion of Iraq was exceedingly helpful and even assissted the military in altering or discarding tactical plans.
In addition to being Schröder's chief of staff, Steinmeier was also the Chancellery's go-between with the BND. He has long said that the agents in Baghdad had been given instructions which "precluded active support of combat operations." The Schröder government has also suggested that the BND mission -- details of which first began appearing in the German press in 2006 -- helped ensure that civilian facilities in Baghdad didn't get targeted.
That version of events, though, has come under fire numerous times in the past two years. Indeed, suspicions that German involvement was more active than so far admitted led to the establishment of the investigative committee in the first place. The widespread US military praise of the BND role in Iraq in the pages of SPIEGEL has led to renewed skepticism of the official story.
Particularly from Germany's conservatives. Prior to Thursday's questioning of Steinmeier, parliamentarians from the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, indicated that they were planning on sharply questioning the foreign minister. Steinmeier's reaction showed that they clearly got under his skin.
He wasn't the only one. Joschka Fischer, who served as Schröder's foreign minister, likewise made an appearance before the investigative committee on Thursday. And he was just as impassioned as Steinmeier in rejecting the implication that his government was anything less than totally opposed to the Iraq War. He called accusations to the contrary "malarkey" and a "canard."
Fischer said, as he has many times before, that he approved the mission to Iraq. However, he also stated that the agents' activities in Baghdad had not been the subject of cabinet discussions. He said he "was not familiar with operative questions when it came to the BND." Fischer added that the period had been an "intense time," which -- given his other responsibilities -- didn't allow him to keep track of the agents' activities.
Parliamentary investigative committees in Germany have a purely political function. Should its final report determine that Steinmeier and Fischer have been less than forthright, the consequences would be limited. For Fischer at least. He has long since withdrawn from the political spotlight.
Steinmeier, on the other hand, is facing a long 2009 campaign for the Chancellery. It is looking like it will be one that will require a lot of patience.
With reporting by Matthias Gebauer, John Goetz, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark
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