US spying endangers democracy, says German president

Joachim Gauck suggests Edward Snowden ‘deserves respect’ for NSA revelations

German president Joachim Gauck expressed concerns that foreign intelligence services flouted German citizens’ constitutional right of ownership over their private data. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

German president Joachim Gauck expressed concerns that foreign intelligence services flouted German citizens’ constitutional right of ownership over their private data. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

 


German president Joachim Gauck has warned that widespread US surveillance of European communications poses a “danger for democracy”.

Revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were “deeply unsettling”, Mr Gauck said, adding that Mr Snowden’s decision to go public deserved respect.

Mr Gauck’s intervention is one that carries moral authority: from a head of state who was first an East German civil rights campaigner and, for a decade from 1990, the first custodian of the Stasi secret police files.

“To be honest, I have considered whether I can still telephone or mail openly,” said Mr Gauck yesterday in a newspaper interview. “I do it, but I never would have thought that the fear could arise again in Germany, that private communication is no longer possible.”


State surveillance
Germans were particularly sensitive to state surveillance, he said, because of their experience of secret police in the Third Reich and in East Germany. Mr Gauck made a clear distinction between the NSA and East Germany Stasi which, he said, “spied on its own citizens . . . to intimidate and oppress them”.

However, he expressed concerns that foreign intelligence services flouted German citizens’ constitutional right of ownership over their private data. State collation of this data was permissible, he said, only under narrow circumstances and on a limited scale.

“The fear that our telephone calls and mails are being collated and saved by foreign intelligence services narrows the feeling of freedom and with that in turn comes the danger that freedom itself is impaired,” he said.

Asked if Mr Snowden was a hero, Mr Gauck said that cases of institutions flouting the law often were only resolved by making information public.

“Whoever makes this information public for reasons of conscience deserves respect,” he said.

The NSA affair has blown up into a political scandal in Germany after Der Spiegel magazine published claims by Mr Snowden that the NSA collated wholesale communications data via its Prism programme and bugged EU and German government offices.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has said she learned about Prism through the media. A poll published yesterday suggested that 78 per cent of Germans do not believe her.

German opposition politicians accuse the chancellor of singing dumb and playing for time on the issue until after September’s federal election. They want to quiz her before polling day at a parliamentary committee that oversees intelligence affairs.

Meanwhile, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said yesterday he thought concerns over the NSA had been been blown out of proportion.