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German Defense Minister Under Fire in Parliament

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Germany's Defense Minister Under Fire

(Source: Deutsche Welle German radio; published August 1, 2013)

Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere has been facing fierce criticism since the failure of Germany's drone project Euro Hawk. A parliamentary investigative committee has now revealed how things stand.

Thomas de Maiziere's Euro Hawk nightmare knows no end. Even the parliament's summer recess has not brought the defense minister any relief from the question of how much personal responsibility he carried for the failure of the 660 million euro ($875 million) drone project. On Wednesday (31.07.2013), de Maiziere faced the parliamentary investigative committee that is meant to unpack what went wrong.

The unmanned aircraft was meant to carry out reconnaissance missions for the Bundeswehr. The project was kickstarted in 2002 by the center-left government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, as an effective way of keeping German soldiers out of harm's way.

The army's then Inspector General Harald Kujat was involved in the decision-making process at the time and still maintains that the drones are indispensable for the military. "The project is desperately needed," he told state broadcaster ARD. "Our armed forces need them in order to carry out a mission successfully, but also for their own safety."

De Maiziere describes 'birth defects'

The US firm Northrop Grumman was commissioned to manufacture the drone, while German EADS subsidiary Cassidian was responsible for the reconnaissance software. According to de Maiziere, there had already been difficulties during the project's conception phase. "The problems were underestimated at the beginning of the project, as well as during the course of the project," he said before the committee on Wednesday.

The end for the Euro Hawk came in May of this year: the drone failed to receive permission to fly in German airspace - gaining that permission would have required the investment of another half a billion euros, and even then permission would not be guaranteed. That was why the ministry cancelled the project. Opposition politicians now accuse de Maiziere of not ending the project soon enough.

Fight over unsolvable problems

Stephane Beemelmans, a deputy minister in the defense ministry, testified before the investigative committee on Tuesday. He confirmed what de Maiziere has already said about the timeframe of learning about the Euro Hawk problem, saying that he told the defense minister about the problems with the drone project on May 13. De Maiziere is said to have then approved the cancellation of the project.

Speaking before the committee, de Maiziere said once again that though he may have known about the project's problems before May, he stressed that "they always seemed solvable."

On this point, the opposition questioned de Maiziere's words. Rainer Arnold, the committee's SPD chairman, accused the defense minister of having lied. According to daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the minister received a folder with information on serious problems with the Euro Hawk project as early as December 2012.

And on Wednesday, the Berliner Zeitung published a report that showed the papers had been marked up in green, the minister's color. The opposition took this as a sign that de Maiziere had been dealing with the topic earlier than he claimed, a charge the minister denied.

'Betrayed the confidence of the public'

"A minister who deals with reality and truth in this manner has betrayed the confidence of the public, and especially the soldiers, and can no longer lead this important department," said Arnold on Wednesday, speaking on German public radio.

Government politicians from the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats have emphasized that Beemelmans' statement confirms exactly what de Maiziere has said since the beginning of the dispute. Even if it is the truth, it would not be the end of the minister's troubles, said Arnold.

"The deputy minister must inform his minister, but a minister also has an obligation," he said. "He must independently seek information on activities and projects, especially when it comes to expensive and complex things like the Euro Hawk."

Complicated ministry structure

One reason for the communication problems in the Ministry of Defense could be the way the ministry is set up. The department was already set to be overhauled in 2009. The goal: a ministry that would be easier to control "from the head down to the toes," something which has not yet been achieved, explains political scientist Christian Mölling of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"They basically have a diffusion of responsibility, so that in the end no one is responsible," Mölling told DW. He doesn't see de Maiziere as being the sole person responsible for the current debacle. "The task of the entire ministry is to prepare the minister so that he cannot fail, politically and militarily. Therefore, the ministry appears to have left de Maiziere standing in the rain."

What does the future look like for de Maiziere? He stands by his statement that he didn't receive the crucial information until May 13, while the opposition insists this happened earlier. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she stands behind her minister, and that he would be able to answer any questions that may arise.

Opposition politicians from the SPD, Green and the Left parties have called for de Maiziere's resignation. But Kujat doesn't think the minister should step down before the September elections. "This issue did not arise under de Maiziere's watch, but was passed from one minister to another," he said. "I don't think he should resign."