German spy chief's future creates new strains in government

The future of Germany's domestic intelligence chief is creating fresh strains in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government following his much-criticized comments about recent far-right protests in the eastern city of Chemnitz.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told parliament Thursday that Hans-Georg Maassen retains his confidence as head of the BfV intelligence agency. Seehofer said Maassen explained his remarks "convincingly."

Members of the center-left Social Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's six-month-old coalition government, made clear they don't agree.

The killing late last month of a German man, for which an Iraqi and a Syrian have been arrested, prompted days of anti-migrant protests in Chemnitz that at times turned violent.

In comments to the mass-circulation Bild daily last week, Maassen questioned the authenticity of a video showing protesters chasing down and attacking a foreigner. He also said his agency had no reliable evidence that foreigners were "hunted" in the streets — a term Merkel had used.

Maassen told Seehofer, his immediate boss, about his doubts before going public but didn't inform the chancellery. Although they are conservative allies, Seehofer and Merkel have sparred on and off about migrant policy for three years. A dispute between the pair in June briefly threatened to bring down the government.

On Wednesday evening, Maassen was grilled by two parliamentary committees.

"He explained comprehensively, and from my point of view convincingly, the way he acted," Seehofer told lawmakers. Maassen debunked "conspiracy theories" and "convincingly took a stance against right-wing radicalism," he added.

Merkel doesn't appear keen to make an issue of Maassen's remarks, telling parliament Wednesday that a discussion about semantics isn't helpful. But the Social Democrats, who are struggling in polls, said Seehofer's decision to keep Maassen in place couldn't be the last word.

Senior lawmaker Eva Hoegl told lawmakers that the security services must enjoy "our unrestricted confidence, and if there is even the slightest doubt about that, there is a problem — so we should act differently here."

The head of the Social Democrats' youth wing, who fought unsuccessfully earlier this year to keep the party out of Merkel's government, suggested that it should quit the coalition if Maassen is kept on.

Hoegl, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio, said Maassen "was not able to restore the confidence he has shaken" and that Seehofer or Merkel should revisit the decision.

But "the Social Democrats are, of course, not going to leave the coalition over Mr. Maassen," she said.