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Politics

Merkel expects 'clear commitment' on US online espionage

Angela Merkel has said she expects the US not to break German laws in data collection. A newspaper has reported that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service knew about the US National Security Agency’s snooping for years.

The online espionage activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) and other organizations, revealed for the most part by whistleblower Edward Snowden, have firmly established themselves as an election talking point in Germany.

At the very start of an annual summer interview with public broadcaster ARD, Chancellor Angela Merkel was reminded that her Social Democrat rival Peer Steinbrück had said she "failed" the German people by not protecting their privacy.

Data protection takes center stage in Merkel summer interview

Merkel said that a recent US visit by her interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, "could only be a first step," and that further clarifications from Washington would follow.

"I expect a clear commitment from the US government that they will adhere to German law in the future when on German soil," Merkel said, adding that she did not yet know whether German laws were breached by the NSA or other bodies in the past. "We are friends and allies. We are in a defense alliance and we need to be able to rely on each other."

Ends versus means

The Christian Democrat said that while cooperative efforts to combat terrorism were important and would continue, boundaries should be defined, preferably on an international scale.

"Not everything that is technically feasible - and more and more will be in the future - should be allowed," Merkel said. "The ends don't justify the means here, in our view."

The chancellor added that she would sound out EU leaders on a continental data protection standard agreed by all, saying strong German data protection laws could do nothing to help people using websites based abroad.

"We have a truly excellent federal data protection law, but if Facebook is registered in Ireland, then Irish law applies, and that's why we need a unified European directive," Merkel said. The chancellor also said that, so far as she was aware, her communications had not been tapped.

The 20-minute interview marks the start of the summer break for German politicians, a "break" that's liable to be light on legislation but heavy on campaigning in this federal election year.

Asleep at the wheel?

Opposition politicians have sought to pounce on the government's reaction to the NSA spying allegations, claiming that German authorities must have known about the activities and arguing that the government's response was too soft once Snowden went public.

"Mrs. Merkel has sworn as chancellor to protect the German people from harm," Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrück said in an interview with the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag, calling for a parliamentary probe into possible dereliction of duty. "I envisage damage limitation as something rather different."

"Whoever is at the wheel carries the responsibility, regardless of whether they're awake or have dozed off," Steinbrück surmised.

Steinbrück's colleague, SPD secretary general Andrea Nahles, said Merkel's Sunday interview offered only "trivialities."

Meanwhile the daily newspaper Bild reported Monday that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service has known about NSA snooping for years. Bild reported that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) had, for example, asked US intelligence services for help when German citizens were kidnapped abroad.

"We know of a long cooperation between the German intelligence service and US agencies," an official quoted by the newspaper said. "The government has not made the details of this cooperation public, except for to a parliamentary committee."

Election countdown

Germany votes on September 22, and opinion polls currently suggest that Merkel's Christian Democrats could score in excess of 40 percent of the vote - making them the best-supported single party as usual. Their current junior coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, are currently polling around 5 percent, however, meaning the two parties combined might not win the outright majority needed to govern in Germany.

Merkel said on Sunday that while she hoped to again rule alongside the Free Democrats, she would not rule out an alliance with the Green party, currently polling around 12 percent. Her other coalition option might be a so-called Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats, on around 26 percent at the moment.

msh, mkg/av (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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