German domestic intelligence head relieved of duties, but promoted
Ending an impasse in Angela Merkel's coalition, Hans-Georg Maassen is changing jobs. The move is a compromise between Social Democrats, who demanded his removal, and conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
The latest quarrel within Chancellor Angela Merkel's government about refugee policy has ended with a somewhat surreal compromise. Hans-Georg Maassen, the under-fire head of the domestic intelligence agency — formally known as the "Office for the Protection of the Constitution" (BfV) — will be stripped of his current job but gain a theoretically better one as a deputy head of the Interior Ministry.
The move is a deal between junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), who demanded Maassen's removal, and conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who had backed the controversial BfV head.
In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, the German government wrote: "The Office of the President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution will be re-filled. In future Mr. Maassen will become a state secretary in the Interior Ministry. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has high regard for Mr. Maassen's abilities on questions of domestic security, but he will not be responsible for the BfV within the ministry."
With that, Maassen has moved up to the status of deputy minister, but has been stripped of all association with the BfV. Controversy around the 55-year-old has been building for weeks after he publicly doubted the authenticity of a video depicting what seemed to be angry right-wing protesters chasing a man they thought to be foreign through the streets while shouting xenophobic slogans. Maassen offered no evidence for his skepticism about the video's provenance.
Maassen was also criticized for sharing sensitive information about security priorities with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Saving face on all sides
The compromise bears all the hallmarks of a coalition divided not only along conservative-SPD lines but also within the conservative bloc itself. Maassen and Seehofer, who is also the chairman of the Bavarian conservative party, the CSU, have been critical of the welcoming policies toward migrants of Merkel and her much larger conservative party, the CDU.
On Monday, reports emerged that Merkel had decided to bow to SPD demands to remove Maassen, who has been accused several times of harboring sympathy for the far right. Shifting him to the Interior Ministry to a nominally superior and better-paid post is a concession to Seehofer, who is readying the CSU for Bavarian state elections next month.
The wrangling over Maassen's future is the latest in a series of conflicts over migrant policy within the coalition, mainly pitting Merkel against Seehofer. This summer, Seehofer brought Merkel's government close to collapse by insisting on Bavaria's right to independently deport rejected asylum-seekers, in breach of EU rules and German national policy. A crisis was only averted when Seehofer climbed down.
Seehofer had been quoted as saying that if Maassen had to go, so would he. Tuesday's compromise allows him to stay on as interior minister for the time being. On Wednesday, Seehofer is scheduled to brief the press on the details of the personnel shuffle, including Maassen's potential successor at the BfV.
Hans-Georg Maassen, the former head of Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) — the domestic intelligence service — has often drawn fire for his remarks and actions.
Maassen gained notoriety in 2002 while working for the German Interior Ministry and arguing that Murat Kurnaz, a German resident held in the US prison at Guantanamo for five years before being released, could not return to Germany because his residency had lapsed. Herta Däubler-Gmelin, who was justice minister at the time, called Maassen's argument, "false, appalling and inhumane."
In 2012, Maassen was tapped to lead Germany's top spy agency. He promised to restore faith in the BfV, which was embroiled in controversy over its entanglement in the right-wing extremist scene and his predecessor's decision to destroy files related to the neo-Nazi NSU murders.
Maassen has been accused of having "a troubled relationship with basic democratic principles" for his pursuit of bloggers on grounds of treason and trying to suppress negative stories on the BfV. In January 2017, he told parliament reports the BfV had undercover agents in the Islamist scene connected to the Berlin Christmas market attack were false. Records showing it did became public in 2018.
Before Maassen made headlines by questioning the veracity of videos of right-wing protesters chasing foreigners through the streets of Chemnitz, he was under fire for advising right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) on how to avoid scrutiny from his agency. He has also been accused of sharing confidential documents with the AfD before presenting them to the public.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (r.) continued to support Maassen even after his controversial remarks over Chemnitz. Seehofer even took the ex-spy chief into the Interior Ministry in what was essentially a promotion. But that compromise has not been seen favorably by many in Germany, and failed to calm troubled waters within the ruling coalition over the affair.
Maassen was finally forced into retirement in 2018 after he spoke about "radical left-wing elements" in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, who had, he said, seized gladly upon his controversial remarks to provoke divisions in the government. He also criticized Germany's policies on refugees and security as "naive and leftist."
The Christian Democrat Union in one district in the eastern German state of Thuringia chose the controversial former intelligence chief to run in this year's parliamentary election. Some 86% of party members in the small region voted in favor of Maassen becoming the party's directly-elected candidate on the ballot. The move means he has a shot at entering Germany's parliament in September.
'An unbelievable fudge'
Neither Merkel nor Seehofer nor SPD chairwoman Andrea Nahles, who met on Tuesday evening to determine Maassen's fate, faced reporters after the decision was announced. That was probably a calculated move, as the compromise has been greeted with scorn by opposition politicians and press analysts alike.
"This is an unbelievable fudge," wrote Green Party parliamentary leader Katrin-Göring Eckardt on Twitter. "Anyone who rewards rather than sanctioning disloyalty and cozying up to the AfD has lost all sense of what's right and wrong. And the SPD goes along with everything."
"What qualifies Maassen to be a new deputy in Seehofer's ministry?" asked the Left Party on Twitter.
"Maassen's promotion is only a solution on paper," declared Christian Lindner, chairman of the center-right FDP, on social media. "Either you trust him or you don't."
For its part, the AfD has interpreted the efforts within the coalition to remove Maassen as an attempt to stifle criticism of Merkel's migrant policy, with party co-leader Alice Weidel tweeting "Merkel, not Maassen, should go!" The party is also promoting the hashtag #wirsindmaassen — "we are Maassen."
Migrant activist groups reacted to Maassen's lateral move with dismay. The media have largely dismissed the compromise as a move born of political expediency; Die Welt newspaper noted acidly, "The coalition can continue — maybe it will even be able to govern some day."
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