Interior Minister Mr. Thomas de Maizière, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union and former chancellery chief of staff, was shielded by bodyguards on Wednesday as he moved through the crowd to a special meeting with the parliamentary control committee in charge of supervising Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND.
Minutes later, the current head of the chancellery, Peter Altmaier, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, made his way to the committee room, followed by BND President Gerhard Schindler.
All three officials faced a battery of sensitive questions on the surveillance scandal behind closed doors. But some details have leaked out.
In a first indication of how Berlin is responding to the scandal, Mr. Altmaier informed the committee that the German government has decided to substantially limit the number of so-called “selectors” it receives from the U.S. National Security Agency, according to a report in Der Spiegel.
I will be happy to make myself available. Angela Merkel,, German Chancellor
The selectors, which include IP addresses, emails and phone numbers, are downloaded by the BND into its monitoring systems to spy on targets.
The BND is said to have supplied intelligence data in thousands of instances on companies, organizations and politicians in Western Europe, including Germany. The targets of this corporate espionage allegedly included Airbus, previously called European Aeronautic Defense and Space, or EADS, and helicopter maker Eurocopter.
After the meeting, Mr. De Maizière went on the offensive to defend accusations that he knew about the corporate espionage activities. At a press conference, the chancellor’s close ally denied any wrongdoing in the scandal during the time he ran her office and oversaw intelligence matters.
“As chancellery chief of staff in 2008, I knew nothing about selectors from the U.S. side” for the purpose of “industrial espionage in Germany,” he told reporters. “There is no substance to the allegations against me.”
Not everyone, however, is buying his story, especially opposition politicians. Green Party lawmaker Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the parliamentary control committee and the separate NSA investigative committee, told German television the “case of Mr. De Maizière remains open.”
Mr. De Maizière and Mr. Altmaier testified not only to defend themselves, but also to protect the chancellor in connection with a scandal that has meanwhile turned into a crisis for Ms. Merkel.
Ahead of the meeting, she conceded a "need for clarification" and said she was willing to testify before the control committee or the investigative committee. "I will be happy to make myself available," she said.
On Monday, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who is also the chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party, put the chancellor under pressure when he told the media that she had assured him on two separate occasions that the case did not involve industrial espionage.
Critics accuse him of trying to damage Ms. Merkel's image of invulnerability. If so, the strategy appears to have worked. According to a survey by the Insa Institute, 62 percent of eligible voters believe Ms. Merkel's credibility has been jeopardized.
And more action is underway that could further damage her credibility.
Federal Prosecutor General Harald Range has reportedly told the judiciary committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, that he had issued a request for information to the chancellery, demanding lists of the NSA's selected search criteria for data obtained through BND surveillance, as well as details on whether industrial espionage had occurred.
Ms. Merkel's credibility has been jeapordized.
At the meeting, Mr. De Maizière was expected to deny knowledge of corporate espionage activities while head of the chancellery. The chancellery, he would argue behind closed doors, did not receive concrete information on any attempts to spy on EADS, Eurocopter and various French government agencies until 2010 - after his term from 2005 to 2009. In fact, the BND had approached the chancellery in 2008 to report that the NSA was requesting an expansion of a shared satellite surveillance program.
Mr. De Maizière has said the BND and his own experts had advised him against rejecting the U.S. request, which he called "a problematic cooperative program." But in the end, he did.
Whether he likes it or not, Mr. De Maizière will face further questions, such as: What was behind his agents' distrust of the NSA? And how is it possible that the BND had known about the NSA overstepping its bounds since 2005 but had failed to inform the chancellery, which supervises the intelligence agency?
Left Party politician Jan Korte called upon members of the government to "put their cards on the table."
Dietmar Neuerer, who covers policy in Berlin, contributed to this story. Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin.Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin.Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]