Media reports that the US National Security Agency has been monitoring phone and Internet records have raised concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. The revelations have left European politicians scrambling to respond.
Senior European Union officials said on Monday that they intended to use a meeting later this week to question their American counterparts about the possible impact on the privacy of EU citizens caused by the National Security Agency (NSA) monitoring program.
"This case shows that a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint, but a fundamental right," the European Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding said.
The European Parliament announced that it would discuss the issue in a debate on Tuesday.
"We have always been firm on data protection within the EU and when negotiating with third countries, including the US," Guy Verhofstadt of the parliament's liberal bloc said. "It would be unacceptable and would need swift action from the EU if indeed the U.S. National Security Agency were processing European data without permission."
Germany's justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, described the NSA activities reported by Britain's Guardian and the Washington Post last week as a "reason for concern." Speaking to regional public broadcaster BR, she also said she expected Chancellor Angela Merkel to raise the issue when she meets with US President Barack Obama next week.
The chancellor's spokesman told reporters in Berlin that there was no doubt that the issue would be discussed.
"This is a circumstance that must be examined very carefully," Stefan Seibert said.
Obama is to visit Berlin next Tuesday and Wednesday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney though, played down the possibility that the NSA's surveillance program could sow discord between the two leaders. At the same time, he noted that the president "believes this is a conversation especially worth having here in the US but abroad as well."
Earlier in the day, Britain's foreign secretary cancelled a trip to Washington to speak to parliament about some of the assertions made in the Guardian and Washington Post reports.
William Hague told lawmakers that British spies had not used US eavesdropping programs to circumvent UK laws.
"It has been suggested that GCHQ (Britain's electronic surveillance agency) uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the United Kingdom," Hague said.
All this came a day after the latest twist to the NSA surveillance story, with a former CIA employee admitting that he was the insider who had leaked the details of the US surveillance program to the Guardian.
Edward Snowden admitted Sunday he was the source behind the Guardian's disclosures.
Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency (NSA), revealed his identity in a video posted on the newspaper's website. The Guardian said it had published the video at his own request.
"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," he said.
Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA, had been working for the NSA as an employee for various outside contractors including Booz Allen Hamilton. In a statement Booz Allen confirmed the 29-year-old Snowden had been an employee at the firm "for less than three months."
Snowden's wherabouts were not known on Tuesday morning after he cheecked out of his hotel room in Hong Kong. He said he had chosen to flee to that city because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent."
pfd/kms (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)