Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he was unaware of a U.S.-Germany treaty dispute that has exposed large numbers of U.S. military members to big tax penalties from German finance authorities.
Blinken, who was in Germany on Sept. 8 to discuss with allies evacuation efforts in Afghanistan with U.S. allies, told reporters he was “unaware” of the matter but pledged to “look into it,” Stars and Stripes reported.
“I’m sorry, [it’s] not something that I’m aware of, but I’d certainly invite you to take that up with the embassy, if they can work the issue and I’ll double back and look into it,” Blinken told reporters, adding that it was “not something that was on my radar.”
The tax dispute centers on a disagreement over how the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, which was originally signed in 1951, should be interpreted. Blinken, as head of the State Department, oversees the resolution of the matter.
The agreement is designed to put the pay of military personnel, Defense Department civilians, and contractors—which is also taxed by U.S. authorities— off limits for German authorities.
However, service members have reportedly been penalized by German authorities and forced to pay tens and thousands of dollars in German income tax, and have also faced threats of imprisonment, and frozen bank accounts.
Last year, reports surfaced that German tax collectors were trying to gather personal information—including detailed job histories, real estate holdings, and names of associates—about U.S. military personnel in an effort to build tax-liability cases against troops.
Authorities were reportedly questioning U.S. service members to establish whether they are in Germany for reasons beyond their military service, such as being married to a German or owning German property or a vehicle with German specifications, suggesting special ties to the country.
Those that are may be liable to pay taxes to German authorities for the military pay they have received while in the country, unless they can prove they have a “willingness to return” home to the United States. However, the legal criteria for establishing the willingness is rather vague and decided on a case-by-case basis, according to Stars and Stripes.
One questionnaire, sent out by the Landstuhl-Kusel tax office, asked American service members multiple questions regarding the property they owned at home and abroad, who occupies it, whether or not their children had ever attended a German school and to provide a list of their travel dates to Germany, Military.com reported.
The United States contends that these attempts by German authorities is a violation of the NATO Status of Forces Agreement and lodged a formal complaint last year, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass and other German leaders saying they were interested in resolving the dispute.
It is unclear why Blinken is unaware of the issue, given his role as head of the State Department.
In July, the U.S. Embassy in Germany, which is leading negotiations with the German government regarding the tax hits, said it was working to address the issue but would not provide further details.
“While we do not comment on diplomatic exchanges, the Embassy and the military commands are aware of this long-standing issue and working closely in concert to address what we believe to be a misinterpretation of the NATO Status of Forces Agreement,” Scott Robinson, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said in Berlin. “The Department of Defense and Department of State are engaged to try and reach a resolution.”