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Snowden's open letter

Marcel Fürstenau / cmkNovember 18, 2013

Chancellor Angela Merkel has received a letter from the man who revealed the US was listening in on her phone. Germany's parliament is now discussing this latest twist in the National Security Agency spy scandal.

File illustration picture shows a projection of a text on the face of a woman in Berlin, June 12, 2013. Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) has known about the United States' surveillance and storage of German data for years, German paper Bild reported on July 15, 2013, adding the BND had actively used it in cases of Germans kidnapped abroad. Citing U.S. government sources, Bild said the BND had asked the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for the email and telephone records of German citizens kidnapped in Yemen or Afghanistan, to help ascertain their whereabouts and contacts. The BND was not immediately available for comment. Picture taken June 12, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski/Files (GERMANY - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS)
Image: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel can expect parliamentarians to ask uncomfortable questions at the special parliamentary session on the NSA affair on Monday (18.11.2013). Why, for one, is she not prepared to grant whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum in Germany? Why did she play down the National Security Agency (NSA)'s spying on the Internet and electronic communication for so long?

But the time for evasiveness has passed, ever since it became known that US intelligence was tapping the chancellor's mobile phone. Her tone suddenly became indignant, saying "spying among friends, that cannot be."

And now Snowden, who revealed the extent of the NSA eavesdropping program, has put pen to paper with a request.

"I look forward to speaking with you in your country when the situation is resolved," Snowden wrote in a letter addressed to three people: Merkel, European Parliament President Norbert Lammert and German Attorney General Harald Range.

No asylum for Snowden in Germany

The bearer of this surprising message was Green Party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele, who traveled to Moscow in late October to meet with Snowden at an undisclosed location for several hours.

Thirty-year-old Snowden was granted asylum in Russia, initially for a year. But there is little prospect of this happening in Germany, Merkel's Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said in one of the special sessions of the Parliamentary Control Panel on November 6. His comments followed Ströbele's detailed report about his meeting with Snowden.

At most, the German government could imagine interviewing Snowden in his Russian exile, he said. Under what conditions this would be possible was a matter for the Ministry of Justice to investigate.

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 22: Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) and Peer Steinbrueck, chancellor candidate of the German Social Democrats (SPD) are seen at the end to the 'Elefantenrunde' live television broadcast at ZDF studios following federal elections on September 22, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Today Germany is holding federal elections that will determine whether the current Chancellor Angela Merkel of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) will be voted in for a third term. (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
Steinbrück accused Merkel of accepting the American infringement of German rightsImage: Nigel Treblin/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Merkel's coordinator of the German secret services, Ronald Pofalla, announced a fundamental review of German-US intelligence cooperation. In summer, both sides had agreed to try to reach a so-called no-spy agreement, which would prohibit mutual spying on friendly states. This would be a "unique opportunity to regain lost trust," Pofalla said.

Pofalla: "There are not millions of rights violations"

Back then, at the height of the general election campaign, Pofalla said "there have not been millions of violations of fundamental rights in Germany" - a statement that, coming from him, was given extra weight.

At the time, as today, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), the post-communist Left Party and the Greens harbored doubts about this view. Merkel was vigorously attacked by her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück, who accused her of lacking the will to properly investigate the affair.

"Ms. Merkel has not distanced herself from the Americans and has accepted the infringement of German rights and interests without criticism," Steinbrück said after Pofalla's denials.

But the fact that Merkel also no longer seemed to fully trust one of Germany's main allies was also somewhat apparent in the summer. On the day of Steinbrück's criticism, the chancellor called for a strengthening of Europe's Internet technology. The reason: all the major data hubs and the networking equipment industry are in Chinese and American hands. "I venture to doubt whether that's a good thing," Merkel said at the time.

'Anti-Americanism' and accusations of inaction

Despite the doubts of his party leader, Hermann Gröhe, the general secretary of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, accused the SPD of anti-Americanism. "The US government is being demonized as if it were the source of the danger, and not international terrorism," said Gröhe.

Shortly afterward, following another meeting of the Parliamentary Control Panel, Pofalla said the government would clear up any outstanding issues. Classified documents and letters, including signed commitments from the NSA, would be carefully examined, step by step.

Der Bundesdatenschutzbeauftragte Peter Schaar, aufgenommen am 27.06.2013 in Erfurt (Thüringen) während einer Pressekonferenz nach einem Treffen der Datenschutzbeauftragten der Länder. An der Konferenz nehmen die Vertreter der elf Bundesländer teil, die mittlerweile über ein Informationsfreiheitsgesetz verfügen. Foto: Martin Schutt/dpa
Schaar has indirectly accused the government of inactionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One who would have gladly been involved in this process, and who as Germany's privacy commissioner could be expected to be included, was Peter Schaar. But he was rebuffed by Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, supposedly because he was not directly responsible for the matter.

In the wake of the alleged tapping of Merkel's mobile phone, Schaar has now indirectly accused the government of inaction. It was only when the chancellor was personally affected by the NSA affair that any action was taken, he said.

Demonstrators in Berlin Foto: Rainer Jensen/dpa
Thousands of Germans protested against the NSA affair in Berlin in SeptemberImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Growing protests

Merkel's government was not completely inactive, however. Back in July, a few weeks after Snowden's revelations, Friedrich flew to Washington and met with US Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Lisa Monaco and Attorney General Eric Holder. They spoke of the NSA affair in talks that Friedrich described as being an "open and constructive exchange of views." It had become clear "that the US side was able to understand and relate to the concern on the German side."

But as the NSA affair continued to smoulder, the protests outside parliament grew stronger. In early September, activists from the data protection group Digitalcourage demonstrated in front of the construction site of the new headquarters of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in Berlin, venting their anger against spying of any kind.

The symbolic protest was a warm-up for the mass demonstration on September 7, which saw 20,000 people from civil rights groups, journalists' associations, and members of opposition parties including the Internet-oriented Pirate Party protest against Internet surveillance. Their motto: "Freedom instead of fear."

Some two months later, the federal government seems to have begun to take citizens' concerns more seriously than when the scandal broke. Merkel's phone and Snowden's letter have added a new dimension to the NSA affair.

Friedrich called for an apology from the Americans. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle summoned the US ambassador in Berlin and publicly rebuked the NSA's conduct.

No legal action, yet

It is still unclear whether Attorney General Range will become involved in the NSA scandal. After Snowden revealed that the NSA had tapped Merkel's phone, investigators initiated two so-called observation operations. But the information provided so far was insufficient for them to take action, they said last Thursday in response to a query by the news agency dpa.