No parliamentarian voted against the establishment of a special Bundestag committee investigating the global spying activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and counterparts like the GCHQ in the UK. Another key question for the committee will likely be whether the German intelligence agencies were either aware of, or complicit in, the gathering of people's data.
The four major German parties will all provide parliamentarians for the eight-person committee.
"A society in which everything is monitored is not free," committee chairman Clemens Binninger, a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, said in parliament. "We do not want to live in such a society."
Binninger's committee will be charged with ascertaining if Germans' rights were violated by espionage activities. It should also try to discover which German politicians were targeted by the NSA or other intelligence agencies. Data protection provisions, and means to better protect private communications, should also be discussed.
High hurdles, also at home
Furthermore, Green party committee member Konstantin von Notz said he hoped the committee would "not just point the finger at the others, but also sweep its own doorstep."
This appeal was met with a note of caution from Binninger, who warned against excessively "rattling" German intelligence agencies. "We need them," Binninger said, who also acknowledged that his committee's work was likely to face serious difficulties.
"The process of gathering evidence will be difficult, and possibly even limited in scope," he told parliament on Thursday. "Nevetheless, we are currently able to gather together and evaluate lots of information. We will publicly deal with everything we can."
Skype with Snowden?
The Mittelbayerische Zeitung on Thursday reported, citing government sources, that the committee was considering ways to involve former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in the process. The paper reported that Snowden might speak to the committee via the Internet telephone service Skype. The European Parliament had invited Snowden to do so earlier this year; he subsequently issued a written statement instead.
Social Democrat Christian Flisek only said on Thursday that Snowden was "naturally" a possible witness that the committee would consider calling. The eight politicians will only officially convene for their first meeting, however, in the first week of April.
Snowden, currently in Russia on a temporary asylum deal, is wanted in the US and cannot travel freely.
In a country with relatively fresh memories of oppressive secret police services - first under Adolf Hitler and then in former Communist East Germany - the German public's reaction to the NSA espionage revelations was particularly strong.
This morphed into more explicit criticism from the political classes only when it became apparent that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone was among the lines monitored by the NSA. It later emerged that Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, was also tapped - with the NSA first targeting him over his refusal to support the US-led invasion of Iraq.
President Barack Obama made a rare appearance on German public television in January, shortly after a feature interview with Edward Snowden, pledging that: "as long as I'm president of the United States, the chancellor of Germany will not have to worry about this."
msh/lw (AFP, dpa)