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Snowden decision on ice

April 10, 2014

Germany's panel investigating NSA espionage will not decide whether to summon whistleblower Edward Snowden until after Chancellor Merkel's US visit. Proof, the opposition claims, that the panel is a "toothless tiger."

Hans-Christian Ströbele bei Edward Snowden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Veteran Green politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, who visited former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden in Russia last October, lambasted Thursday's move to delay a decision on calling Snowden as a witness.

The German parliamentary inquiry charged with investigating the activities of the NSA and other intelligence services, including Germany's, voted by majority on Thursday to discuss the issue at its next meeting on May 8 - just after Angela Merkel's visit to the US.

Ströbele criticized politicians from the grand coalition, who hold six of the eight seats on the panel, saying that they were "playing the federal government's game."

"It's really obvious that a decision like this is designed to signal to the US that this inquiry is a toothless tiger," Ströbele said. Ströbele's party colleague Konstantin von Notz said he was baffled by the delay, saying that anybody still unconvinced of Snowden's value as a witness "should call a doctor."

Wieck: Snowden unlikely to come to Germany

The Christian and Social Democrat panel members countered that they needed time to work out the logistics of a possible Snowden testimony - he is currently in Russia on a temporary asylum deal, stranded by a US arrest warrant - before they could make the decision.

Hans-Georg Wieck, a former president of Germany's NSA-equivalent BND, said he believed that Snowden would testify via video-link or in writing, if at all - that bringing him to Germany was not an option: "The ties between Germany and the US are simply too important for that," he told Thursday's Mitteldeutsche Zeitung paper.

The Social Democrats' Christian Flisek said there was no question that Snowden could be an important witness, but that there were "fundamental questions about both his personal safety and integrity."

The manner of the decision upset the opposition; the two representatives - the Greens' Von Notz and the Left party's Martina Renner - can demand that a witness be called despite being in the minority. However, they cannot overrule procedural matters such as Thursday's move to delay a Snowden decision.

Chairman Binninger resignation

The panel, formed less than a month ago, has led a troubled early existence. On Wednesday, its chairman Clemens Binninger resigned his post, a few days after the inquiry's inaugural session. Binninger said he was quitting because of the differences of opinion among the panel, saying this would prevent him from offering the "pertinent cooperation between all parties" that he promised when the inquiry was launched.

"A parliamentary inquiry's first order of business should not be to serve party-political profiling," Binninger said when announcing his resignation.

On Thursday, following questions raised by Ströbele, Binninger said that Angela Merkel's government had "absolutely no influence" on his decision.

The Christian Democrat had also warned when the process began that the inquiry's work would be "difficult, and possibly even limited in scope." He advised against excessively "rattling" German intelligence agencies - whose knowledge of or complicity in foreign intelligence operations should also be examined.

Binninger's replacement as chairman, Christian Democrat Patrick Sensburg, did not rule out testimony from Snowden in an interview with public television on Thursday. But he told ARD that there were "still a great many hurdles to clear beforehand."

The espionage allegations leveled by Snowden were met with particularly fervent criticism in Germany, a country with relatively fresh memories of oppressive secret services - first under Adolf Hitler and then in former East Germany. This was followed by more explicit political criticism when it became apparent that Chancellor Angela Merkel and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder were subject to NSA phone surveillance.

msh/dr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)