A panel of German lawmakers have convened to question German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich about the US spy program "Prism." Berlin has denied knowing about the snooping, but recent media reports say otherwise.
Germany's interior minister faces a panel of German parliamentarians who want answers about the US National Security Agency (NSA). The committee seeks to determine not only whether US spying infringed upon the rights of German citizens, but also if the German government knew about the surveillance program.
Government opposition groups, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Left, have criticized Friedrich's recent meeting with US officials in Washington as unproductive and weak. However, Friedrich defended the outcome of the talks.
"We received a good deal of information [in Washington last week]," Friedrich said in a brief interview ahead of the highly-anticipated closed door meeting, adding that he would share the information with the panel in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon.
Washington has begun declassifying information and now Berlin had the task "not only of analyzing the information, but also of assessing the ramifications," he said.
'No one knew'
So far, Friedrich has only revealed that US activities prevented five terrorist attacks on German soil, a claim also expected to be discussed during Tuesday's closed door meeting in Berlin.
The country's main opposition groups accuse the German government of feigning ignorance about the NSA's surveillance program "Prism." Friedrich insisted on Tuesday "no one knew" how Prism worked or how much information the US had gathered.
In late May, former NSA subcontractor Edward Snowden leaked information about US snooping on phone records and Internet activities to the British daily "The Guardian" and the "Washington Post." In subsequent interviews the whistleblower alleged the US surveillance program intercepted information from EU states, including Germany.
Snowden later told German news magazine "Der Spiegel" that Berlin knew about, and had benefited from, the NSA's intelligence gathering.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government have denied previous knowledge of Prism. However, an article published by the German daily "Bild" earlier this week appeared to verify Snowden's claims. Germany's Federal Intelligence Service - the Bundesnachrichtendienst - had relied on NSA help when German citizens had been kidnapped abroad, Bild said, citing a German government official.
Merkel 'doesn't care'
Ahead of general elections, the opposition, which is lagging in opinion polls, is trying to capitalize on the issue.
Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary floor leader of the Social Democrats and the head of Tuesday's parliamentary committee, criticized the government's handling of NSA revelations.
Friedrich came back from Washington "empty handed," Oppermann told ARD on Tuesday morning, adding that he questioned the claims of averting terrorist attacks.
Even worse, he added, was that Chancellor Angela Merkel had backed away from the controversy, opting instead to let critics attack her interior minister.
"She doesn't appear to care," Oppermann said.
Oppermann isn't the first politician to scrutinize Merkel's role in the controversy.
Merkel's main opponent in upcoming federal elections, Peer Steinbrück, said she had "failed" German citizens by not protecting their privacy.
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.
kms/rg (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)