German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich wants to talk about US spy programs when he visits Washington, while the opposition has accused the German government of doing too little to get an explanation.
When President Barack Obama visited Berlin in June, Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to talk about Prism, the newly revealed US spy program. There was a small but revealing scene in the subsequent joint press conference - as soon as the first journalist brought it up, Obama cut in, even though the question had clearly been directed at Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The president's minute-long answers made clear that he had been waiting for this cue to send a message to his German allies. The words "terrorism," "weapons of mass destruction," "Osama bin Laden," and "fifty threats" all came up - US intelligence agencies, Obama insisted, had foiled fifty terrorist threats in Germany and the US. "These programs saved lives," he said.
"The encroachment on privacy has been strictly limited by a court-approved process," the president added, before claiming that email exchanges between German, American, and French citizens were not being monitored. "We don't do that," he declared. That apart, Obama said it was important to hold a discussion about the balance between security and privacy, nodding in the direction of the chancellor, who for her part described the Internet itself as "virgin territory." And with that, both seemed satisfied that the matter had been settled.
At this point, German data rights activists should have known that the government would only send a couple of mild requests for information to Washington on the Prism program. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich did not seem particularly concerned that the National Security Agency was accessing data on Google, Facebook, and other Internet services outside US territory.
Germany had so far been spared terrorist attacks, which was partly because of "information provided by our American friends," Friedrich told the Bundestag at the end of June.
German intelligence agencies, meanwhile, said they had known nothing of Prism before. "It may be that some information that we got from American authorities in individual cases could have come from a program like this," said Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's federal intelligence agency. But his office did not know. Otherwise, he said he had learned of Prism from the press.
No asylum for Snowden
Germany's parliamentarians reacted a lot more critically than its government. During one Bundestag debate, Free Democrat representative Jimmy Schulz sarcastically greeted "the listeners at their surveillance machines." By then, it had also emerged that the Tempora program run by the British secret service was intercepting Internet and telephone data coming to and from Germany on a vast scale.
Social Democratic Party spokesman Thomas Oppermann condemned the spy programs as a serious violation of the basic rights of German citizens. The Left and the Green parties called on the government to take in whistleblower Edward Snowden, still holed up at Moscow airport. The IT specialist and former NSA contractor had done democracy a great service by making these revelations public, they insisted.
But after thinking about it for not very long at all, the German government decided not to offer Snowden asylum.
Who is a friend, who is an enemy?
And yet, the tone from the chancellery grew sharper when more details from Snowden's revelations became public: the NSA, it turned out, had also spied on European Union offices and those of its member states. The EU's diplomatic offices in Washington had been bugged, and its internal computer networks infiltrated.
Even the chancellor was put out by this, and had her spokesman declare, "Monitoring friends, that is not good. It is unacceptable. We're no longer in the Cold War." Merkel called Obama on the phone, and arranged meetings in Washington with Interior Minister Friedrich and specialists, to take place in the coming week.
But the opposition has expressed doubt that the government and the German intelligence agencies did not know of the programs. Veteran Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele emerged from a closed meeting with representatives of the secret service saying that he felt like the wool was being pulled over his eyes.
"If it's true, then we clearly have a gap in our protection," commented Social Democrat parliamentarian Thomas Oppermann. Apparently the German security forces are incapable of protecting its citizens from foreign surveillance.
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