BERLIN, May 6- An ally of Germany’s Angela Merkel faced a grilling by a secret services oversight panel Wednesday over a spy scandal that has hurt the chancellor’s ruling coalition and threatens ties with European allies.
German media have accused the foreign intelligence service BND of helping the US National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on targets including the French presidency, the European Commission and aviation and defence giant EADS, now called Airbus Group.
In the firing line Wednesday will be Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who has denied charges he misled parliament over the “BND affair”, when he faces a closed door session of oversight body the Parliamentary Control Panel.
De Maiziere oversaw Germany’s spy services as Merkel’s chief of staff from 2005-09. His ministry told parliament as recently as last month that the government had no knowledge of NSA industrial espionage.
That claim has seen him caricatured as a liar with a Pinocchio nose in Germany’s best-selling newspaper Bild, which has reported that at least the BND was well aware of the US snooping at the time.
“So far a lot of facts remain in the dark, and the chancellery has made contradictory statements,” the panel’s chairman, Andre Hahn of the far-left Linke party, told national news agency DPA ahead of the meeting.
The key question for the panel is to what extent the BND willingly cooperated as the NSA broadened its surveillance from potential terrorist targets to European politicians and companies, and whether the Merkel government knew.
The affair has angered some of Berlin’s European partners, with the government of Austria declaring Tuesday it would launch legal complaints against persons unknown over the espionage claims, days after Airbus filed a similar complaint.
France was more forgiving Wednesday, saying it “trusts” the German government to take all necessary actions.
“The Franco German friendship will overcome this news, which has still to be confirmed,” said government spokesman Stephane Le Foll.
– Spying among friends –
The scandal presents a rare threat to the broadly popular Merkel, who in 2013 famously told the US that “spying among friends just isn’t on” following reports that the NSA had eavesdropped on her mobile phone.
Now facing allegations of hypocrisy, she has softened her statement to say friends “shouldn’t” spy on each other, while stressing the importance of US intelligence cooperation in the face of terrorist threats.
Her vice chancellor, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, who is expected to challenge her in 2017 elections, has thrown down the gauntlet saying she had twice told him personally that she knew nothing of US industrial espionage.
Gabriel has reportedly told party colleagues that he wants to prevent the SPD from being “dragged into this quagmire”, and that the controversy must be explained by those “who have been responsible for the past 10 years”.
Merkel, whose spokesman has conceded “deficits” in BND operations, has pledged to face the parliamentary panel if asked.
“I will testify and stand accountable, if necessary,” she told a regional radio station. “I will gladly make myself available.”
Although Merkel is regularly voted Germany’s most popular politician, the scandal has tarnished her image.
A poll published by Bild Wednesday found that 62 percent believed the BND affair had “damaged her credibility”, while 42 percent said they wanted the foreign intelligence service chief Gerhard Schindler to resign.
For now the affair shows no sign of abating, as the small opposition Greens and Left parties have also called meetings of a separate panel investigating the NSA scandal that was sparked by revelations from fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.