Three years after Germany shook up the transatlantic alliance with a firm "no" to involvement in the Iraq war, a German parliamentary committee is looking to find out how solid that stand really was.
Revelations over the past week that two German intelligence agents stayed in Iraq during the war and helped American forces assess targets has shaken political Berlin. Coming on the heels of allegations that the former government tacitly approved the CIA ferrying of terrorist suspects through Europe and reports that German agents questioned Guantanamo Bay prisoners, opposition politicians and voters are demanding answers on the extent of Germany's involvement in the US-led war on terror.
The strong reaction focuses on a question confounding many democracies today: How much does the public need to know about intelligence operations?
But the need for explanation in Germany is especially acute. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's opposition to the Iraq war marked a new independence and assertiveness in German foreign policy after decades of tacit agreement and support along the Washington line.
The opposition to the Iraq war was the "first sign of a sovereign move of Germany in international politics," says Hans Geissmann, deputy director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. But, he continues, it "becomes questioned because of this undercover cooperation."
Last week, respected German investigative journalists Hans Leyendecker and John Goetz reported on the work of two intelligence agents who stayed in Baghdad after the embassy staff pulled out. The reports disagreed on whether the agents provided targets that should be avoided as US forces attacked Baghdad, or whether they provided the Defense Intelligence Agency with information used to bomb an apartment complex in the early stages of the war. Either way, the revelations that the agents were passing information on to their bosses that was then sent to Washington astounded Germans.
German officials acknowledge that the pair stayed in Baghdad after the beginning of the war, but say it was only to provide the German government with information on the progress of the war. Officials have also pointed out that Germany provided other help, such as the stationing of antichemical weapons units in Kuwait.
The foreign minister said he would cut his Middle East trip short in order to speak in a parliamentary debate on the issue Friday. Parliamentarians are likely to call for an investigative committee. The committee wants to look into the Iraq affair, but also into allegations that the intelligence services sent two agents to interview two terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay. At stake is greater parliamentary knowledge over the work of the intelligence services.
Experts don't expect the parliamentary investigation to hurt any political careers. Rather, the effort highlights the difficulty some Germans still have in acknowledging the complex realities facing a country eager to be a major world player.
"I think there's a lot of hypocrisy and righteousness in parts of the public realm that doesn't really want to look at it in a realistic way but a moralistic way," says Jens van Scherpenberg of the German Institute for International and Security affairs.