Merkel Softens Criticism of U.S. Spy Programs Before Obama Visit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dialed back her government’s criticism of U.S. surveillance activities, saying information-gathering is necessary to fight terrorism.

Merkel said she’ll discuss concerns about the scale of the U.S. National Security Agency’s spying operations with President Barack Obama when he visits Berlin this week. While calling for “clarity” on the issue and seeking greater cooperation and data exchange, Merkel lauded cooperation with U.S. espionage agencies in counter terrorism.

“It did surprise me to a certain extent, though on the other hand we recognize that the United States has taken up the fight against terrorism,” Merkel said in an interview today in Berlin with broadcaster RTL.

The chancellor’s response was more conciliatory than that of her top justice official, who last week sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder demanding answers following the disclosures and citing “great concern” over the scale of the spying operations.

“This may constitute massive access to telecommunications data without permission on a huge scale,” German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said June 5.

European governments have expressed 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.

While saying the involvement of the companies was “remarkable,” Merkel said that German intelligence depends on cooperation with the U.S. She cited a planned bomb attack foiled by authorities in 2007 that could have been the worst in Germany’s post-World War II history. German agents relied on American intelligence to prevent the attack, Merkel said.

“We also want to fight terrorism,” Merkel said in the interview. “There’s no question about that.”

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