AMSTERDAM, Feb 11 (Reuters) - A Dutch cabinet minister faced calls to quit on Tuesday after admitting he wrongly told parliament that 1.8 million telecommunications intercepts had been collected by the U.S. National Security Agency, rather than the Dutch spy service.
His departure would come at a bad time for Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government. It is polling close to the lowest level since taking power in November 2012 and only two weeks ago saw deputy finance minister Frans Weekers resign over a benefits scandal.
Internal Affairs Minister Ronald Plasterk wrote on Monday in a letter to parliament that it was the Dutch intelligence service, not the NSA, that had collected the so-called metadata.
Plasterk said he had known for more than two months that he had provided incorrect information, but only rectified the error in Monday’s letter.
Explaining his error, he said he had sought to counter media reports in Germany and France that 1.8 million Dutch phone calls had been bugged, and had suggested the NSA had done so, which turned out to be wrong.
Plasterk said the Netherlands shared that metadata with the NSA and he defended his decision not to be more forthcoming earlier, saying he wanted to protect “the modus operandi of the state intelligence service”.
Several opposition parties have called for Plasterk, a prominent member of the Labour Party which shares power with the business-friendly Liberals, to quit. Plasterk was expected to defend his actions later on Tuesday in a parliamentary debate during which he may still face a no-confidence vote.
The Plasterk issue is weighing heavily on his Labour party, which slipped sharply in a leading opinion poll published at the weekend.
Media revelations based on intelligence documents leaked by fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA spied on the electronic communications of European Union citizens including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as EU institutions, deeply embarrassed Washington and frayed relations with some of its most important allies.
But some EU governments acknowledged that they had also shared metadata their agencies had collected with the NSA, drawing accusations of hypocrisy over their sharp criticism of U.S. cybersurveillance abroad.
Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mark Heinrich