Top German government leaders failed to decide on the future of the country’s top spy Thursday, as a controversy he triggered risks a new crisis threatening Berlin’s uneasy coalition.
Leading politicians including Chancellor Angela Merkel “adjourned” their talks until Tuesday, an interior ministry spokesman said after the two-hour meeting, adding that there had been a “good discussion.”
Meanwhile news agency DPA reported that Hans-Georg Maassen, who heads Germany’s domestic intelligence agency BfV, could bow out on his own initiative after weeks in the unwelcome political spotlight.
A media sally by Maassen appearing to minimize violent far-right protests in the city of Chemnitz set up a confrontation with Merkel.
She had firmly condemned a “hunt against foreigners” backed by videos circulating on social media, but Maassen appeared to directly contradict her by questioning the authenticity of at least one of the clips before backpedalling.
For critics, Maassen’s claim played into the hands of right-wing extremists.
Questions were also raised about Maassen’s political intentions, as he had previously been accused of meeting leaders of the far-right AfD party to give them advice on how to avoid being placed under official surveillance – allegations that he has rejected.
On Thursday, new accusations emerged against him, with an AfD MP saying Maassen gave him unpublished official data.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the CSU, has so far thrown his weight behind Maassen.
But the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the third party in Merkel’s coalition, said Maassen’s position had become untenable.
Lars Klingbeil, SPD general secretary, said: “It’s absolutely clear to the SPD leadership that Maassen has to go. Merkel must take action.”
The demand by the junior partners forced Merkel to invite Seehofer and SPD leader Andrea Nahles to her office for Thursday’s inconclusive talks.
Maassen in August 2012 took over at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) after his predecessor was forced to quit as it emerged the service had shredded files on suspects of the deadly neo-Nazi cell NSU.
As BfV chief, Maassen leads an agency charged with collecting and evaluating information on efforts to harm the democratic order or jeopardize Germany’s interests.
But among his key tasks following the NSU scandal was also to restore public confidence in an institution accused of being too lax with the far-right threat and too heavy-handed on extreme left activism.
The latest episodes with the AfD and the far-right have reopened uncomfortable questions over the service’s neutrality.
Maassen, a bespectacled 55-year-old, faced a grilling by two parliamentary committees on Wednesday, before Seehofer told parliament emphatically Thursday that Maassen “continues to have my trust in him” as BfV chief.
He argued that Maassen had “a convincing position against right-wing radicalism.”
The controversy refused to go away however as AfD MP Stephan Brandner told public broadcaster ARD that the spy chief on June 13 handed him figures from his agency’s latest annual report “that had not been published.”
“We spoke about different figures that were in the report,” said Brandner, adding that the data was related to Islamists deemed dangerous by the service, as well as to the agency’s budget.
The BfV published its report five weeks later.
Rejecting the ARD report, a BfV spokesman said it “gives the impression that information or documents have been passed on illegally. That is of course not the case.”
The spokesman added that Maassen holds talks with members of all parties in parliament at the request of the interior ministry.
But the SPD warned its coalition partners that it was time to let Maassen go.
Raising the stakes, the leader of the SPD’s youth wing, Kevin Kuehnert said that the scandal could threaten the survival of the coalition itself.
“If the BfV president stays in his job, then the SPD can no longer keep working in the government,” he told Spiegel Online.