BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s interior minister, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, denied on Wednesday charges he lied to parliament about German intelligence cooperation with U.S. spy agencies, but remained under fire over a string of blunders.
The industrious but colorless Thomas de Maiziere, once tipped as a possible Merkel successor, is a key pillar in her right-left grand coalition government with strong appeal on the right wing of her Christian Democratic (CDU) party.
The left-wing opposition and the media have assailed de Maiziere over his record as chief of staff in 2005-09 and whether he knew about the German intelligence agency (BND) helping U.S. agencies spy on European firms such as defense manufacturer Airbus.
They have also accused him of bungling his last job as defense minister by failing to react to reports that the German army’s G36 rifles do not shoot straight, and he remained silent as a major rival, Ursula von der Leyen who is now defense minister, rubbed the salt in his wounds.
“I follow the rules,” de Maiziere said in a statement on Wednesday after Bild newspaper published a story accusing him of lying to parliament and the public.
“That’s my understanding about the treatment of top secret information. It’s in my own interest to clear these accusations up. They are not true and the documents would show that.”
The Left party called for de Maiziere to resign.
Merkel’s chancellery has said that since 2008 it had been aware of the U.S. National Security Agency’s interest in spying on European defense companies even though parliament was told last August it had no information about any such espionage.
Analysts say that Merkel remains loyal to de Maiziere, who has long been a punching bag for the opposition. His cousin Lothar de Maiziere was old East Germany’s last prime minister and made Merkel’s career possible as his spokeswoman.
“Merkel won’t let him be sacrificed,” said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “She’s known him from the start of her career and they’ve always been fiercely loyal to each other. She’d be exposed if he had to go.”
Several chancellery sources said Merkel’s popularity makes it hard for the opposition — or even the Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners — to attack her without harming themselves.
“So if you can’t hit the chancellor, it’s understandable that they try to strike out at the some of the stronger people around her,” said one government source.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Mark Heinrich