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German Defense Chief Under Renewed Fire Over Drone Project

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere came under renewed pressure to step down after the cancellation of a spy-drone project, as lawmakers quizzed him over a report his ministry withheld information from parliament.

De Maiziere appeared for a second time in front of the lower house’s defense committee in Berlin today, fielding questions after Der Spiegel magazine said in this week’s edition that the Defense Ministry failed to answer specific queries from legislators about the risk of cost overruns for the Euro Hawk.

“He is not prepared to take on the responsibility for the failure of his ministry,” Social Democratic opposition floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement. The SPD will press for a parliamentary investigative committee, he said.

The drone affair centered on de Maiziere, a confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel, threatens to damage their Christian Democratic Union party little more three months before national elections. De Maiziere last week denied bungling the project, which he scrapped in May, laying the blame on exploding costs.

“If there was deception” the minister will have to resign, Peer Steinbrueck, the main opposition SPD chancellery candidate, told reporters today.

The defense minister cited additional costs of as much as 600 million euros ($793 million) for airspace certification as one reason for scrapping Euro Hawk. Northrop Grumman Corp. disputed the need for extra spending, yet a study by the German government confirmed the cost overrun, he said.

Global Hawk

De Maiziere said he’ll stay on in his post and reiterated that the decision to scrap the project was right, even as he said that he should have made additional inquiries on the drone affair and will improve the ministry’s procurement methods.

“The timing of the decision was the right one, since an earlier decision could have made things worse rather than better,” the minister told reporters after the hearing. He rejected accusations that he’d “pulled one over” on lawmakers.

Der Spiegel reported that de Maiziere’s ministry was aware of rising costs tied to the drone program since 2012, yet didn’t respond to queries from parliamentarians on the project. The minister said problems brought to his attention earlier were always portrayed as “solvable.”

Merkel Backing

Merkel sees “no reason” not to continue backing de Maiziere, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said today.

The Euro Hawk is a modified version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force, with European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co providing the sensor payload after teaming up with Northrop in 2000.

A resignation at the Defense Ministry, which oversees Germany’s 4,400 troops in Afghanistan, would be the third during Merkel’s current administration.

The first was Franz Josef Jung, who stepped down in November 2009 a month after Merkel’s second-term coalition took office in the wake of a German-ordered military strike in Afghanistan, an incident over which the opposition also accused the ministry of withholding information.

Jung’s successor, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned 16 months later, in March 2011, following allegations that he’d plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis.

De Maiziere, who has previously been mooted in German media as a potential successor to Merkel as chancellor, was her chief of staff between 2005 and 2009 before moving to the Interior Ministry at the start of her second term. In May 2010, he was dispatched to Brussels to fill in for Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble during a key meeting of the European debt crisis after Schaeuble fell ill.

De Maiziere, a cousin of Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany’s first and only democratically elected prime minister, served in several state administrations in the east after reunification in 1990. He and Merkel met around that time, when she served as a spokeswoman to Lothar de Maiziere.

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