Germany's Kohl sticks with sadder-but-wiser defense minister

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's version is that a chastened Manfred Worner will now make a crackerjack defense minister. The opposition's version is that Dr. Kohl's ''masterly inactivity'' may once again have held the dam tactically - but that it has added to future political pressures on the conservative chancellor.

This was the reading in Bonn as the full Bundestag (parliament) took up the dragged-out Kiessling affair Wednesday, and the special Bundestag inquiry committee on it opened its hearings.

Kohl's thesis is that the whole mess has now been resolved with the rehabilitation of Gen. Gunter Kiessling, the retention of Defense Minister Worner, and the establishment of an independent commission to reform ''MAD'' (the Military Counterintelligence Service). Kohl ordered the reinstatement of General Kiessling and - to a chorus of press protest - declined to accept Worner's resignation last week.

Worner had prematurely retired General Kiessling - a deputy NATO commander and West Germany's third-highest ranking general - after MAD brought allegations last fall that Kiessling had frequented homosexual bars in Cologne and was therefore vulnerable to blackmail and a security risk. The charges proved to be ill documented, and Worner then embarked on a hectic search for incriminating evidence that included inviting to the Defense Ministry a militant Swiss homosexual with a court record of falsely labeling prominent politicians as homosexuals.

It was after a storm erupted - openly in the press and discreetly within the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) officer corps - over this hounding of Kiessling that Kohl ordered the ''rehabilitation'' of the general. What this means is a return to the original agreement of last fall between Worner and Kiessling: Kiessling will now retire early, with full honors, on March 31 - and in the interim will remain in a hospital for health reasons, without access to classified information. It was Worner's reneging on this deal and his unilateral retirement of Kiessling last December, without honors, that brought the whole affair into the public eye.

Those who support Worner think it's all to the good that he got ''bloodied'' in the affair, as a commentator phrased it. They regard the ex-Luftwaffe pilot and military theorist as one of the most qualified men ever to hold the job of defense minister. But they think his considerable self-confidence needing deflating. This has now been done with a vengeance, replaced, Worner's friends hope, by a healthier skepticism.

One of his state secretaries, who was involved in the decision about Kiessling, has resigned; Worner is working to fill this and one other state secretary vacancy. He also seems determined to carry out a thorough-going reform of MAD, which has something of a reputation of overlooking real spies while snooping on mere political dissidents.

Kohl alluded to the sadder-but-wiser assessment of his defense minister at the Bundestag Feb. 8: ''I am convinced that Manfred Worner in the future - especially after this experience - will do a particularly outstanding job for our Bundeswehr.'' He challenged the view that Worner, through his mishandling of the Kiessling affair, has lost too much authority ever to be able to restore it.

The opposition's view of the current state of play is different. Social Democratic Party leader Willy Brandt referred to Kohl's growing do-nothing reputation and added that the slogan ''stop Strauss'' is not a sufficient guide to state policy.

What Brandt was needling Kohl about was the open secret that the chancellor's decison to keep Worner in office was largely motivated by Kohl's desire to prevent his conservative ally and rival, Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss, from joining the Cabinet.

Strauss's Christian Social Union, the sister party to Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, has been hinting broadly for months that Strauss should become an economics superminister and vice-chancellor by replacing liberal Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff, who may soon be indicted on suspicion of bribery in soliciting corporation contributions to liberal coffers.

When Worner's resignation seemed imminent last week, Strauss let it be known he would rescue the Defense Ministry if need be.

The Kiessling affair should simmer down now, even though the parliamentary inquiry will drone on for weeks. Given Kohl's comfortable Bundestag coalition majority, it will certainly not bring down the government. But Kohl's retention of Worner has nudged the West German press, which originally regarded Kohl as something of a do-nothing bumpkin, back in the direction of its initial opinion. Six months ago the news media was showing a grudging admiration for the way Kohl had quietly outmaneuvered Strauss.

From now on, the reform of MAD will probably make few headlines. The opposition wants legislation authorizing (and limiting) MAD's powers - none exists today - and the Social Democratic interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia has just forbidden cooperation by any state police with MAD except on very high-level written authority.

The conservatives have no intention of inviting the publicity that would attend new legislation, however. Instead, they want to keep MAD's reform within the closed circle of the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee - a body from which the Green MP's are excluded.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Germany's Kohl sticks with sadder-but-wiser defense minister
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today