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NSA Scandal

Can Germany call on Snowden as a witness?

Accusations that the NSA eavesdropped on Angela Merkel's cell phone stem from documents leaked by Edward Snowden. German politicians and the country's attorney general would like to question him.

His is the face of the NSA scandal: Edward Snowden, former employee of the CIA and NSA. Over the summer, and carrying thousands of secret documents, he traveled to Hong Kong. From there, it was onward to Russia.

The latest revelation - about the NSA eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone - also came directly from the pages released by Snowden. To many German politicians, then, Snowden would clearly be the most appropriate person to speak to as a witness in the spying affair.

Wearing a black business suit and red tie, German politician Thomas Oppermann gestures with his right hand to emphasize his argument in the gray room of German parliament's plenary chamber.
Photo: Maurizio Gambarini

SPD politician Thomas Oppermann wants a full parliamentary inquiry into the eavesdropping scandal

'The US government lied to us'

"Snowden's allegations appear to be credible, while the US government clearly lied to us in this matter," said the Social Democrat Party's parliamentary chairman, Thomas Opperman, in the pages of Germany's mass-circulation BILD newspaper on Sunday (27.10.2013).

During that interview (link in German), Opperman called for an investigative committee to be formed into the eavesdropping affair. Such an inquiry, he argues, should try to question the whistleblower himself.

The problem with this is that, although Snowden has enjoyed asylum in Russia since August, his exact place of residence is not publicly known. By traveling to Germany, he would run the risk of being handed over to the US - although Oppermann considers such a scenario unlikely.

"I can't imagine that the Federal Republic of Germany would deport someone who uncovered a serious act of espionage against the German chancellor to the country that conducted that act of espionage," the Social Democrat added on public German television channel ZDF.

Germany is not alone

Other German politicians would like to go a step further. Christian Ströbele of the Green Party has proposed granting asylum to Snowden in Germany - or providing him with witness protection, at the very least. "He's an important, but vulnerable, witness," Ströbele told the "tageszeitung" newspaper (link in German).

Cryptic typography on yellow paper, part of which is blacked out.

According to NSA documents, the US has been listening to Merkel's phone since 2002

Even Left Party parliamentary chairman Gregor Gysi, probably the most powerful opposition member in the German parliament under the new coalition government, has said that his country now needs Snowden as a witness.

Nor are German politicians alone in their calls for a personal consultation with Snowden. Ten days ago, Brazil's federal police department announced itself ready and willing - if possible - to question the 30-year-old. As South America's largest country, Brazil was the primary target of US spying efforts through the NSA. President Dilma Roussef canceled a planned trip in September in protest against the US' lack of clarification regarding those allegations.

Conceivable, but difficult

In addition to an investigatory committee in Germany's Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, it is conceivable that the case will also be investigated by the country's attorney general at the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

Federal Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger of the free-market liberal party, the FDP, says she can imagine that happening. "We'll see shortly where that can lead, and whether other evidence must be obtained in such an investigation through witness examinations - and can be obtained," she told German public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk (link in German).

Wearing glasses and a business suit, Germany's middle-aged attorney general, Harald Range, looks off-camera before a blue backdrop.
Photo: Mario Vedder

Prior to the spying affair, Range had his hands full with the domestic right-wing NSU terrorist group

Germany's attorney general is responsible for the internal and external security of the country. The post also represents Germany's highest instance of criminal prosecution. Up to this point, the attorney general's office has not initiated proceedings into the cell phone eavesdropping affair. It is, however, examining the case.

"We still lack information," said Attorney General Harald Range on Saturday. "We're trying, through our work, to procure more facts."

One thing is clear, Range added. With regard to Edward Snowden, no witness can be questioned as long as preliminary proceedings have not even begun.

Legal help from Russia?

But even if the attorney general did decide to question the American whistleblower, some very practical problems still remain. "I can't just travel to Moscow and sit myself down in the airport and wait to see if Mr. Snowden stops by," Range said.

One alternative for reaching Snowden, though, is available: the "letter rogatory."

Such a legal request by Germany for Russian judicial assistance would theoretically require Snowden to be questioned on site, in Russia, by Russian authorities. Letters rogatory are not unusual in cases where crucial witnesses are located abroad at the time of investigatory proceedings.

But again, for that process to take place, Germany's attorney general must first begin preliminary proceedings.

DW.DE