‘I knew nothing’ of German spying on allies, Angela Merkel tells inquiry

Chancellor the final witness in three-year parliamentary probe into whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about surveillance by the US National Security Agency

Angela Merkel  testifies on Thursday before the German parliamentary inquiry. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Angela Merkel testifies on Thursday before the German parliamentary inquiry. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA


Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted she was unaware that German intelligence spied on its allies, including the US, when she declared in October 2013 that “spying on friends is just not on”. That remark – in response to revelations that the US had tapped her mobile phone – was the focus of her testimony on Thursday before a parliamentary inquiry into revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden of mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

“I knew nothing, couldn’t have known anything, and didn’t involve myself with what was done there,” said Dr Merkel during a marathon testimony session as the final witness in the three-year-old inquiry. She insisted she had learned only in March 2015 that Germany spied on its allies, 18 months after her chief had ended the practice, allegedly without her knowledge.

Fuelled only by two bottles of water and a cup of coffee, the German leader stood by her belief that it is “just not on” to spy on allies . Her comment was motivated by personal conviction at the time and a belief that German agencies were not doing the same. The key issue in intelligence gathering was striking a balance and proportionality of surveillance to ensure security. This was an issue of relevance to all, she added, not just her and her mobile phone.


Dr Merkel insisted that the Snowden revelations of June 2013 were the first she had heard of mass NSA surveillance. When she learned of the NSA tap on her mobile phone, she said she protested to then US president Barack Obama, saying “we’re not still in the cold war”.

At that point, her chief of staff – who has direct oversight of German intelligence services – had not yet told her that the BND foreign intelligence service was copying NSA tactics to spy on world leaders, parliaments and embassies.

Under questioning, the chancellor insisted she was not privy to the details of the agencies’ activities, a co-ordinating job that fell to her chief of staff. She said it was “absurd” to spy on capitals to find out negotiating positions before talks, saying she had achieved good results in the past without information gained by spying on allies.

“I wasn’t informed about this . . . I assumed the BND didn’t do this,” she said.

Asked if she had apologised to world leaders spied on by the BND – including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and François Hollande – she said: “No.”

The BND surveillance of German allies without apparent political control had exposed “technical and organisational deficits”, she conceded, that had since been corrected.


But Dr Merkel said the importance of intelligence co-operation remained undiminished for Germany in guaranteeing its citizens’ security.

“And I’d like to say clearly that, also under the new US administration, the intelligence co-operation will continue,” she said.

Washington never conceded that it had tapped Dr Merkel’s phone, merely insisting it would not do so in the future. A German investigation into the tap was wound up due to lack of evidence.

Dr Merkel declined to say why she refused to allow Edward Snowden to travel to Germany to testify at the inquiry. Two years after his original revelations, new leaks showed close co-operation between Germany’s BND and the NSA, with the German side conducting illegal data dragnets of its own, using NSA-developed software.

Over hours of testimony, opposition politicians failed to land a killer blow, insisting Dr Merkel’s protestations of ignorance exposed a worrying – perhaps deliberate – lack of executive control over German intelligence services.

Green MP Konstantin von Notz suggested her “spying on friends is just not on” remark from 2013 was an effort to put Germany “on the moral high ground, that we don’t do what the NSA do”.

“Yes, I thought that too,” said Dr Merkel.

“Yes, but that was wrong,” Mr Notz added.