BERLIN — German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Wednesday admitted missteps by his staff in connection with an election-year scandal over a scrapped spy drone deal, but insisted he had no plans to step down.
With less than four months to go until the national poll, De Maiziere, one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s closest allies, said he had made the right decision to pull the plug on the so-called Euro Hawk project last month.
But he acknowledged that he had been kept in the dark for too long on problems with the unmanned surveillance aircraft program, which had already swallowed more than €500 million euros (US $654 million) before he axed it.
“I regret that,” he told reporters.
“I should have organized my ministry in this area so that I as the minister would be involved in decisions with this kind of scope.”
Officials feared aviation authorities would not certify the Euro Hawk — a version of US-based Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk customized by Europe’s EADS — because it lacks an anti-collision system.
The ministry decided the cost of adding such a system was too high, in what German media have dubbed the “drone debacle.”
But asked whether he would resign as a result, De Maiziere said the main consequence of the affair would be an overhaul of his ministry to ensure quicker whistle-blowing.
Merkel’s spokesman told a regular briefing that the minister still enjoyed her “full confidence.”
De Maiziere presented a report on the scandal to parliament’s defense committee earlier Wednesday in which he said he will commission regular status reports on major acquisitions and development projects.
“We have got to encourage people to step forward and call attention to problems, not just tell us what they think we want to hear,” he said.
But he dismissed a key allegation of the center-left opposition, which has stepped up attacks on him as the election campaign gets into full swing — that he wasted taxpayers’ money with a tardy decision.
“The delay did not incur financial damages but rather avoided them,” he said, arguing that it was clear only at a late stage of development that the project would not be worth the expense.
But a poll of voter confidence for Stern magazine showed that De Maiziere, long one of Germany’s most popular politicians, had tumbled six points since the last survey in February to 45 points out of 100.
Viewed as a safe pair of hands with a particular talent for organization and administration, De Maiziere had figured on the short list of possible candidates to eventually take the reins from Merkel.
But the drone scandal has largely silenced such talk.