President Barack Obama’s pledge of new restrictions on mass surveillance by U.S. spy agencies so far offer “no answer” to Germany’s concerns over spying, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government said.
The government in Berlin will “look very closely” at the consequences of Obama’s Jan. 17 speech addressing the topic while talks between the two countries’ intelligence officials continue, Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, told reporters today. Norbert Roettgen, chairman of Germany’s lower house foreign affairs committee, said divisions over U.S. surveillance presented a “real problem” in the face of U.S. defense of its bulk data collection.
“The fundamental question is, should security services be able to do everything they’re technically able to do,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told broadcaster ZDF yesterday. “Obama essentially said ‘yes’.”
The National Security Agency’s collection of signal intelligence, including allegedly hacking into Merkel’s mobile phone, has sparked a trans-Atlantic rift as Germany struggles to lock in a “no spy” agreement with the U.S.
The Federal Prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe said it’s reviewing whether to open a probe to investigate mass surveillance of e-mails and phone calls as well as tapping of Merkel’s phone, the office said in an e-mailed statement. The prosecutor told Germany’s Justice Ministry that there was an initial basis to begin a probe, Der Spiegel reported.
“We will look very closely at what practical consequences the announcements of the U.S. president carry,” Seibert told a regular government press conference in Berlin, adding that key German concerns had not yet been addressed. Private negotiations with the Obama administration to re-orient the nations’ espionage cooperation must continue, he said.
German officials last week said failure to reach an accord would be unacceptable following a report that German spy chiefs had received no solid commitments from American counterparts.
The U.S. president told Germany’s ZDF in an interview broadcast on Jan. 18 that it will “take some time to win back trust” and that his presidential directive blocking surveillance on leaders of U.S. allies means that “the chancellor of Germany will not have to worry about this” as long as he’s president.
The NSA will continue to spy on Merkel advisers even after Obama’s assurances on the chancellor, German newspaper Bild reported today. Citing intelligence employees it didn’t name, Bild said that the NSA has monitored and analyzed with whom Merkel telephoned, had e-mail exchanges and discussed decisions.
“This is not about the chancellor’s mobile phone,” Seibert said. “It’s about safeguarding the interests of the German public,” by achieving the correct balance between freedom, data protection and security, he said.
In his speech, Obama defended U.S. electronic spying as a bulwark against terrorism, while announcing new restraints on global surveillance programs. Those included a judicial review of requests to query phone call databases and an order to Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a way to take storage of that data out of the government’s hands.
Other steps to limit surveillance were left up to a divided Congress, meaning many of the changes may be months away if they are adopted at all.
“I am very sympathetic to why the German people would be concerned about this,” Obama told ZDF, referring to communist East Germany’s Stasi secret police, which deployed hundreds of thousands of informants to snoop on the country’s citizens. “Obviously there’s a history there with respect to East Germany that tells us what happens if you have a vast surveillance state and it turns on its own citizens.”