June 4 (Bloomberg) -- Germany’s top prosecutor will start a formal investigation into whether U.S. intelligence agents tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, potentially heightening tensions between the two countries over spying.
The Federal Prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe said it had uncovered sufficient initial evidence to probe whether U.S. spies had violated German law. A second preliminary inquiry into mass surveillance by U.S. and British intelligence didn’t yield enough proof to warrant a probe, the prosecutor said.
“Extensive findings have brought forward enough initial clues that unknown officials of the American intelligence services placed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone under surveillance,” the prosecutor said in a statement today.
An official probe may widen a rift between the governments in Berlin and Washington that surfaced in October amid reports that signals-intelligence agents from the National Security Agency had hacked the German leader’s phone. A separate parliamentary investigation into mass surveillance, disclosed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the media last year, is already under way in Berlin.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said “there have to be consequences” if evidence arises that U.S. agents tapped government officials’ devices or conducted mass surveillance in violation of German law. The prosecutor isn’t under political pressure from Merkel’s government coalition to act, he said.
“If there are indications that German law has been broken, then investigators have to take action,” Maas told Deutschlandfunk radio. “That applies to the chancellor’s mobile phone as much as it does to mass surveillance.”
Following reports last year that the chancellor’s phone had been tapped, the White House said agents aren’t spying on Merkel and pledged not to do so in the future.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One today that “direct dialogue” with the U.S. is the best way for Germany to address its concerns over spying.
Germany’s justice system “will be making its own decisions about its own inquiries, but we believe we have an open line and good communication with the chancellor and her team,” Rhodes said, while traveling with President Barack Obama.
Der Spiegel magazine, citing Snowden-leaked documents, reported in October that U.S. authorities obtained Merkel’s cell number in 2002, when she was opposition leader. The surveillance was carried out by an NSA “Special Collection Service” from within the U.S. embassy adjacent to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Spiegel reported at the time.
Federal Prosecutor Harald Range’s office said it evaluated media reports and statements from German and U.S. officials as well as Snowden’s public comments on surveillance activity. Snowden hasn’t responded through his German lawyer to a request for information of NSA activity in Germany, the prosecutor said.
The chancellor, who visited Obama in Washington last month, said she and the president still had “differences of opinion” on the scale of U.S. surveillance and intelligence cooperations.
German efforts to convince the U.S. to sign a so-called no-spy treaty have so far been rebuffed by officials in Washington.
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