German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under fire for defending the surveillance of telecommunications as a way to prevent terrorist attacks. This comes ahead of a visit to the United States by her interior minister.
The chairman of the opposition Social Democrats, (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel used an interview published by Spiegel Online on Thursday to accuse Chancellor Merkel of being passive in light of revelations about the alleged activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) in Germany.
The SPD leader also accused the chancellor of trying to pass the buck on the issue to her chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, when she noted that he was responsible for issues relating to intelligence services.
"The scale of this scandal is so large that nobody other than the chancellor personally needs to ensure that basic rights are protected in Germany," Gabriel said.
The co-leader of the opposition Greens, Claudia Roth, struck a similar tone.
"The chancellor alone is responsible for this government," Roth told the Nürnberger Nachrichten newspaper.
Merkel denies Stasi parallel
The statements followed comments the chancellor made in an interview published in this week's edition of Die Zeit newspaper, in which she rejected the suggestion that there were parallels between the alleged activities of the NSA and those of the former East Germany's secret police, the Stasi.
"For me, there is absolutely no comparison between the [Stasi] and the work of intelligence agencies in democratic states," Merkel said. "They are two completely different things and such comparisons only lead to a trivialization of what the Stasi did to people."
She also highlighted the need for governments to protect their citizens, saying "a country without intelligence work would be too vulnerable."
At the same time though, Merkel called on the United States to clear up allegations about American surveillance activities made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Her comments came just hours before her interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, flew to Washington for meetings to discuss the issue.
In an interview with Spiegel Online, Friedrich said he would use his talks with US Attorney General Eric Holder to express not only Germany's concerns but also how seriously Berlin is taking the issue.
"Between friends one must be able to speak openly," Friedrich said. "This includes the fact that for us, the comprehensive surveillance of the contents of all communications is in no way proportionate," he added.
Snowden, who was also once an employee of the US Central Intelligence Agency, has been on the run from the US authorities since he leaked details of a wide-reaching surveillance program, known as Prism. The 30-year-old American is believed to have spent more than two weeks in the transit area of one of Moscow's international airports.
His revelations have stirred up controversy in Germany in particular, due to sensitivities about data protection, in part related to memories of repression by East Germany's Stasi and the Gestapo under the Nazis. This comes just weeks ahead of the next federal election, to be held on September 22.
pfd/ccp (dpa, AFP, AP)