West Germany's 'Kiessling affair' puts its Defense Ministry under a spotlight

West Germany's Kiessling affair has become the Worner affair. On Jan. 26 the special parliamentary inquiry committee opened hearings into Defense Minister Manfred Worner's controversial firing of four-star Gen. Gunter Kiessling - and a storm erupted over the defense minister's personal meeting with a militant homosexual in his extraordinary effort to get ex post facto evidence against the general.

Dr. Worner's resignation is now widely expected.

The ever-escalating scandal highlights:

* The expendability of defense ministers in West Germany.

* The growing self-confidence and self-awareness of the country's professional military officers after three decades of a very low profile in post-Hitler Germany.

* The vigor of the West German press.

* The apparent inability of ''MAD'' - the Militarische Abschirmdienst, or military counterintelligence service - to distinguish between intelligence and gossip.

* The lengths to which power-holders will go - and the fair play they will sacrifice - to justify themselves.

But first, the cast of characters:

Dr. Worner: an ex-Luftwaffe pilot, a longtime defense theorist, a man who gets on well with his American colleagues in the Pentagon and Congress, a man who until the Kiessling affair got on well with the West German brass.

Dr. Gunter Kiessling: one of two deputies of NATO commander Bernard Rogers. General Kiessling was the third-ranking West German general until Dr. Worner retired him prematurely Dec. 31. Grounds for the sacking were suspicions that Kiessling was frequenting homosexual bars and therefore constituted a security risk.

Gen. Wolfgang Altenburg: the Bundeswehr inspector general (chief of staff) since last year; a symbol of the new Germany as the first officer to assume the top Bundeswehr command who did not begin his career as a soldier in Hitler's Wehrmacht.

The drama began last September, when MAD told Worner that Kiessling had been visiting homosexual bars in Cologne, and in the milieu of male prostitutes was therefore subject to blackmail. Worner - without challenging MAD's evidence - called in Kiessling, a professional and personal friend, who emphatically denied the allegation.

The two men, who wanted to avoid a public scandal, agreed that Kiessling would retire early, in March of 1984, with full honors - and would not have access to classified information in the interim.

The expectation of Kiessling in taking this step, as he has explained since the matter became public knowledge, was that a quiet internal investigation would be carried out and that it would clear his name.

The interpretation of MAD, however, was that Kiessling's protestations of innocence just meant he was all the more subject to blackmail and therefore a real security risk.

In early December Worner got worried about the deal and advanced Kiessling's retirement date to Dec. 31, without full honors. Worner himself told inquisitive reporters nothing about the reasons for this unusual treatment, but ministry officials leaked suspicions about Kiessling having homosexual tendencies to the press.

The resulting furor was everything the principals had feared. And as Worner was forced by the press and opposition politicians to reveal the evidence for his decision, it turned out to be very flimsy. No agent of MAD itself had ever seen Kiessling in a homosexual bar. Nor had members of the Cologne police, who had simply shown bartenders a retouched portrait photo of Kiessling (which has since mysteriously disappeared) and been told by the bartenders that they had seen that man.

Furthermore, a look-alike habitue of Cologne homosexual clubs who may have been mistaken for Kiessling was interrogated by police at night, then spirited away - apparently on orders of the Defense Ministry - to a secret location to get away from reporters who had gotten wind of a ''doppelganger'' (look-alike).

After a week of maintaining that it could not reveal its evidence without compromising intelligence sources, the Defense Ministry finally said it had four witnesses ready to confront Kiessling.

Kiessling asked for their names (information that would routinely be given to a defendant in court proceedings). When the names were withheld, he refused to meet them and alluded to a famous frame-up of a Hitler-era general by anonymous witnesses on charges of homosexuality.

At this point Kiessling took his appeal outside the military hierarchy and filed suit for slander in civilian court against the four unidentified witnesses. On Dec. 26, he dropped his military appeal altogether, saying he no longer trusted the Defense Ministry hierarchy.

By mid-January the public case against Kiessling seemed to have collapsed - so much so that not only the opposition Social Democrats but even the ruling Conservatives were calling for a major shake-up in MAD. On Jan. 25 Worner himself appointed a three-man commission to review MAD's operations.

In the past MAD's misadventures have led to the toppling of one defense minister and the replacing of two chiefs of MAD. Social Democratic Defense Minister Georg Leber resigned in 1978 after East German spies were discovered in the ministry (MAD had failed to spot them for years) and after it became known that MAD had wiretapped illegally without Mr. Leber's knowledge.

In addition, the federal data protection commissioner has just revealed that in the past MAD had collected some half a million files of hearsay security suspicions about people who had nothing to do with the military (or MAD's area of competence).

These were said to include some 12,000 files about octogenarians who were well past draft age, about citizens whose black mark was that their parents had fled East Germany when they were children, and about car owners whose automobiles had simply been parked near a demonstration against a Bundeswehr exercise. The commissioner commended MAD for eventually destroying these files, but this hardly reassured skeptics.

When the Kiessling affair first went public, some of the West German news media played the innuendos for their titillation value.

Some blamed the whole campaign against Kiessling on NATO commander Rogers, a man who never got on well with his West German deputy and was reported to have refused to receive him for many months because of Kiessling's supposed homosexual tendencies. (Both Worner and Rogers emphatically deny Rogers had anything to do with the firing of Kiessling).

By now the dominant trend in much of the media is sympathy for Kiessling - and it is certainly the constant nagging of the press that has brought to light MAD's sloppy job in investigating him.

In the past three days the sympathy for Kiessling has risen even higher as it became known that Worner - who has not found time to see Kiessling since their September encounter - did find time on Jan. 20 to meet in the ministry with the former editor of a Swiss magazine for homosexuals.

The reason for this unusual visit was that the Swiss claimed he was contacted years ago by a German male prostitute who said he had had an affair with General Kiessling and wanted to sell the story for 35,000 marks (about $17,000).

The Swiss, Alexander Ziegler, has a history of alleging that prominent officials are homosexual; in 1979 he made this public allegation about the Austrian foreign minister, who sued Ziegler, won the case, and was then rehabilitated in the Foreign Ministry.

Kiessling also has the strong sympathy of his fellow generals at this point. Officers no longer enjoy the solidarity of the aristocratic caste that served the Prussian and even Hitler's Army.

And in postwar West Germany they have been totally subordinated to civilian command and have had no corporate identity of their own.

But anger about the way Worner and his ministry have handled the investigation - with the apparent intent of accusation rather than clarification - runs deep.

Kiessling's predecessor, Gerd Schmuckle, who as a retired general is no longer bound by Army discipline, has been the most outspoken.

Worner must resign, he says, since he has irretrievably lost the confidence of his officers.

Serving generals are more discreet. But their discontent grew so great that Inspector General Altenburg had to call the top three dozen generals and admirals together for a four-hour explanation of the affair Jan. 24.

The assembled command heard the defense minister out, then said laconically that it ''took note of'' the fact that Worner had to make a decision about Kiessling when he did.

The command added, however, that a full investigation must be carried out and that Kiessling must be ''rehabilitated'' if evidence does not bear out the suspicions against him.

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