German opposition threaten action over Snowden asylum

Bundestag inquiry members split on whether to hear testimony from NSA whistleblower

A sticker demanding asylum for US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen outside the partially-finished new headquarters of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

A sticker demanding asylum for US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen outside the partially-finished new headquarters of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 01:00

Opposition parties in Berlin have threatened to ask the constitutional court to overturn the German government’s refusal to grant Edward Snowden asylum to testify before a Bundestag inquiry.

A year after the NSA whistleblower sought asylum in Russia, German MPs are examining his revelations of mass US surveillance of international communications in Germany – including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.

But members of the inquiry are divided along party lines over whether to hear testimony from the man whose revelations brought the committee into existence.

Mr Snowden has refused a proposal for an informal meeting in Moscow, saying he is only interested in testifying formally, in person and in Berlin. But Germany’s coalition partners of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) voted in June to refuse this because it would require a successful asylum application.

Green and Left Party MPs are insisting Mr Snowden be given asylum because they say he cannot testify freely while in Russia. If the government parties don’t change their position at the next inquiry meeting, Green Party committee member Konstantin von Notz will ask the constitutional court to force them.

“The law says the government is obliged to provide administrative assistance for parliamentary inquiries,” he said yesterday. “It is a disgrace for western democracies that Edward Snowden still has to hide himself in authoritarian Russia at Vladimir Putin’s discretion.”

Strained relationship

Behind the scenes, government officials say they are not willing to grant Snowden asylum for fear of damaging German security interests and adding further strain to the transatlantic relationship.

But even CDU committee chairman Patrick Sensburg concedes that Mr Snowden is an important witness for the inquiry. “He has internal knowledge of the NSA and can report on what files he secured and what they say,” said Mr Sensburg.

The federal government had, he said, weighed up the pros and cons of the matter – the need to clarify NSA surveillance versus the potential diplomatic fallout, and signalled it was unwilling to grant asylum. As a wanted man, he said officials indicated Germany would be obliged to pass Mr Snowden on to the US authorities under extradition agreements.

“In weighing things up the government has turned down [the request] saying we cannot make exceptions and give him a right of residency,” said Mr Sensburg.

“Personally I feel sorry for a 31 year-old stuck in Russia unable to travel freely . . . Snowden did this not to damage the US but to do something for his homeland, as a patriot.”

Yesterday Mr Snowden’s lawyer Svetlana Gannuschkina said she assumed his one-year asylum period in Russia, which runs out today, would be renewed.