SPD on back foot over fresh NSA claims

Merkel challenger denies his party opened the door to surveillance a decade ago

Peer Steinbrück in  Hamburg yesterday where he responded to claims about his SPD allies links to the NSA. Photograph: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

Peer Steinbrück in Hamburg yesterday where he responded to claims about his SPD allies links to the NSA. Photograph: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters


Edward Snowden was the uninvited guest in Hamburg yesterday as Social Democrat (SPD) Peer Steinbrück struggled to kick off his campaign to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel.

For weeks Mr Steinbrück and the SPD have used the Snowden revelations to attack Dr Merkel’s government, accusing it of tolerating mass eavesdropping of German citizens to appease Washington.

But Mr Steinbrück was on the back foot yesterday in Hamburg after claims that SPD allies agreed closer intelligence ties with the US National Security Agency (NSA) a decade ago.

Mr Steinbrück described as a “transparent” election stunt the sudden appearance of a memo from April 2002 from ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s chief of staff about the NSA and Germany’s intelligence service (BND).

“This document is the basis of the co-operation between the BND and the NSA,” said a government spokesman of the memo drafted by Frank Walter Steinmeier, now the SPD’s Bundestag floor leader.

Mr Steinmeier, who failed to unseat Dr Merkel in 2009, said yesterday the NSA-BND co-operation was agreed to “clear up an awful crime” – the 9/11 attacks – “and has nothing to do with the blanket collection of our citizens’ data”.

“We’re dealing with completely different technical possibilities today, a completely different dimension, quality and quantity,” he added.

“We didn’t have Prism then, nor the social networks that have been so helpful in providing information to the intelligence services.”

However, allies in Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – who said they knew nothing of Prism until Snowden’s revelations – hurried yesterday to extract political capital from the memo. CDU general secretary Hermann Gröhe accused the SPD of “crying crocodile tears” over surveillance it had initiated.

Even Dr Merkel’s struggling coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), got in on the act, saying the memo revealed an SPD “lack of credibility” on this issue.

While the Green Party stood by its traditional coalition partner, the Left Party attacked Mr Steinmeier as the “biggest hypocrite” of the NSA debate.

The Spiegel Online website dubbed the slanging match between SPD and CDU “Hypocrites versus Ignoramuses”

“Thank God for the NSA,” it noted. ”Without the excited debate over its spying activities the political machine would have nodded off entirely this summer – and this six weeks before a general election.”

The issue is likely to come to a head next week at a final sitting of the Bundestag oversight committee charged with supervising the worked of the BND.

Despite energetic SPD attacks on the government, the NSA scandal has not given Mr Steinbrück and his allies the hoped-for shot in the arm – opinion polls show the party stuck at about 26 per cent.

After eight years in office, meanwhile, Dr Merkel is still favoured as German leader by two-thirds of voters, while her CDU has a 15-point lead on its main opposition rival.

‘Marshall Plan B’
Despite the odds, Mr Steinbrück said yesterday in Hamburg he still intended to fight and finish, on September 22nd, as Germany’s next chancellor. He has a long road ahead of him, presenting a centre-left programme that hits out at crisis-era austerity and proposing a “Marshall Plan B” for southern Europe.

Facing into six weeks of campaigning ahead in Germany’s 16 federal states, Mr Steinbrück said Mr Schröder had given him two pieces of campaign advice: don’t read news reports about yourself and bring plenty of shirts.

“You’ll slave away and sweat a lot,” the two-time SPD chancellor reportedly told him.

Mr Steinbrück, a former finance minister in Dr Merkel’s first cabinet, also made a promise to his wife Gertrud: “No drinking in the election campaign. And I will stick to that.”