NSA Spying Rankles Privacy-Loving Germans

Some say the PRISM scandal may hurt an important trade agreement that's being negotiated between the EU and U.S.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama raise their glasses in a toast during a dinner at the Chralottenburg Castle in Berlin. (Reuters)

As President Barack Obama delivered a speech at Brandenburg Gate a few weeks ago, dozens of protesters voiced outrage over the U.S. government's global surveillance program, holding signs reading, "Yes We Scan."

And since then, things have gone from bad to worse -- especially given revelations that Germany's intelligence services have been working in close cooperation with their American counterparts throughout the NSA's vast spying system.

Amid a deepening scandal, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has watched the growing furor with dismay over the past month, as the demands for answers have reached a fever pitch.

"The German government has a duty under international and German law to protect their citizens against such schemes, and they have to make clear that they're actually doing that on an international level," said Alexander Dix, the Berlin Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.

The controversy swirling around Merkel has boiled down to a fundamental question: who knew what, and when. As news broke in early June that the NSA is tapping into millions of phone calls, emails, and text messages, and that Germany is one of the agency's targets, Berlin responded with measured surprise, promising to investigate the extent of the NSA's activities on German soil.

But as was reported last weekend, Der Spiegel magazine found that the country's federal intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, used software provided by the NSA and even flew representatives to Washington in April for guidance and advice from a specialized unit there.

At her final press conference before heading into the summer break last Friday, Merkel stuck to her claim that she first learned of PRISM's reach in Germany through media reports. She said her coalition government still didn't have all the details it needed on the affair.

"It's not my job to familiarize myself with PRISM," she said flatly, adding that Germany is "not a surveillance state."

But the BND is directly subordinated to the chancellery, and Merkel's line of defense is wearing thin.

"I can't believe that the chancellor, six weeks after the first revelations, still has not looked into what the federal intelligence services actually do," Thomas Oppermann from the opposition Social Democrats told German media.

"I'm the boss. I know nothing" said a headline in the national daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Hans - Christian Stroebele, a parliamentarian from Germany's Green Party, said the government's reaction makes it clear that there was knowledge of PRISM before media reports broke.

"With such a dramatic case of espionage, where even diplomatic representatives are affected, the government would have reacted in a much more dramatic and intense way than it has," he said.

The plot continues to thicken for Merkel. Her interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, was roundly panned in the media and public after returning from high-level meetings in Washington -- intended to clarify the PRISM program -- empty-handed. Instead he praised the American intelligence services, arguing that safety is a "super right," with priority over privacy.

"It was just window dressing," said Stroebele of the visit. "Mr. Friedrich acted as if he couldn't work up the courage to ask his American counterparts hard-hitting questions."

During President Obama's visit to Berlin in June, he argued that PRISM has helped thwart numerous terrorist attacks and keep Americans and Germans safe -- something Merkel has echoed. But that approach has done little to soothe the fears of the public.

"I'd really like them to show us exactly which terrorist plots were actually stopped because of this," said Kathrin Holighaus, a photographer and graphic designer in Berlin. "The majority of the time, (spying) ends up implicating innocent people who are under suspicion even though they've done nothing."

That is a sentiment many Germans share. From the gestapo to communist East Germany, many Germans share painful memories of just how data can be abused, and they have a deep aversion of surveillance of any sort. Germans in then-West Germany were the first in the world to enact a national data protection law in the 1970s.

Part of the problem with PRISM, say analysts, is that the scale and the methods the NSA used simply don't comply with German law, even though the spying included German citizens. The BND, meanwhile, could not employ similar methods if it wanted to.

Presented by

Sumi Somaskanda

is a freelance journalist working in Berlin.

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