‘Bugging friends is unacceptable’: Germany reacts to surveillance claims

Cabinet minister questions the future of trade talks between EU and US

A German cabinet minister has called into question the future of talks on free trade between the European Union and United States, amid claims that the US National Security Agency (NSA) collates half a billion German emails, phone calls and text messages each month.

Der Spiegel reported that the NSA had, in addition to a mass hoarding of European telecommunications data, bugged EU diplomatic representations in Washington and at the United Nations in New York.

A spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock over the reports and demanded answers. Opposition parties implied the chancellor already knew about the programme.

"We are no longer in the cold war," said Steffen Seibert, the chancellor's spokesman. "If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable."

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He implied that forthcoming EU-US talks on free trade could proceed only on the basis of “mutual trust”.

Germany’s federal agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, was more outspoken, indicating the anxiety in Berlin caused by the revelations.

“The trust of European institutions in the US government has been damaged by the spy scandal and the planned free-trade agreement is affected, “ she said. “We have to make clear to the Americans that there are limits for secret services. How can you have faith in negotiations if one has to be afraid of a listening device in your hotel room?”

German president Joachim Gauck paraphrased US founding father Benjamin Franklin in a speech yesterday, saying: "Whoever gives up freedom to gain security will, in the end, lose both."

The US ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy, was called into Berlin's foreign ministry to discuss the reports.

Opposition politicians have pounced on the allegations as a chance to attack the government, three months before the planned general election.

Social Democrat (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel suggested Dr Merkel's reaction to the scandal "leaves the suspicion that she was, at least in a general sense, aware of the spying".


Double standards
In the Frankfurter Allgemeine he called on her to "say what she knew and whether she tolerated it".

The opposition Green Party went a step further, accusing the US of double standards.

“The Americans are acting just like they accuse the Chinese of acting,” said Jürgen Trittin, co-leader of the Green parliamentary party in the Bundestag. Asked if US whistleblower Edward Snowden should be granted asylum in Germany or Europe, he said: “I am of the opinion that such a person should be protected.”

German reaction to the NSA allegations reflects a suspicion of state surveillance, based on historical experience.

In an indication of shifting attitudes, however, new laws came into effect in Germany yesterday allowing police and intelligence service access to citizens’ so-called “inventory data” – name, address, bank pin numbers and and internet address. Privacy watchdogs have expressed concern and said the move may be unconstitutional.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin