German Justice Minister Demands U.S. Explanation on Surveillance

The German government’s top justice official wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seeking answers to a newly disclosed National Security Agency program that collects individuals’ e-mails and data from the Internet.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger sent a letter today to her American counterpart demanding information on the legal foundation of the “Prism” program, details of which were exposed by a former U.S. intelligence contractor.

“I’ve observed with great concern reports about a possible program,” Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in a statement e-mailed by her ministry in Berlin. “This may constitute massive access to telecommunications data without permission on a huge scale.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to raise Germany’s concerns about U.S government surveillance with President Barack Obama when he visits Berlin next week. Her government also sent a list of questions to the U.S. government as well as Internet companies following reports of wide-scale American spying, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said today.

“If there weren’t also irritating elements with respect to the exposure of these programs, it wouldn’t be necessary to so fundamentally seek clarification,” Seibert said. He declined to say whether Merkel shared her justice minister’s position.

Electronic Surveillance

German officials have said they only learned about the revelations in the media, as European governments express alarm at the electronic surveillance program, now acknowledged by the U.S. director of national intelligence, that collects e-mail messages and other data from nine companies including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc.

Prism was first revealed in an NSA slide presentation provided to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers by the former contractor and technical assistant, Edward Snowden. The disclosure of collecting vast troves of phone-call information and international Internet data has sparked a debate over the balance between civil liberties and security.

A week before the American president’s visit, the German minister rejected Obama’s June 7 statement that “you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”

“I don’t share this assessment,” Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the Free Democratic Party, said in a guest commentary published yesterday in Der Spiegel. “A society is less free the more intensively its citizens are watched, controlled and observed. Security is not an end in itself in a democratic society, but rather serves the security of freedom.”

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