Germany conducts hearings on U.S. spying

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BERLIN -- A chapter in transatlantic relations that Washington would sooner forget got a new lease on life Thursday, as German lawmakers opened their first parliamentary hearings into the Edward Snowden scandal.

Revelations of large-scale U.S. spying on Germans, up to and including Chancellor Angela Merkel, prompted an initial wave of outrage last year. But now, the lengthy committee investigations could keep the spotlight on leaks by the former NSA contractor for a year or two to come.

The hearings also have the potential to provoke further antipathy. Indeed, a number of German lawmakers are now demanding safe passage to Berlin for Mr. Snowden -- who is living in self-imposed exile in Moscow -- to testify before the eight-person committee. Any such move would likely outrage the United States, which is seeking to take Mr. Snowden into custody.

Given the potential for angering Washington, analysts believe that Ms. Merkel's government will find a way to sidestep such a move. Nevertheless, the push to give Mr. Snowden his day in Germany serves as another reminder that, even as the scandal appears to be dissipating in other parts of Europe, it remains at the top of the agenda here.

"Mass surveillance of citizens will not be accepted," Clemens Binninger, committee chairman from Ms. Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union, said at the hearings' start on Thursday.

The committee is set to call dozens of witnesses and review piles of documents. But even its members appear to concede the limits of their effort, which is likely to be hampered by an anticipated lack of full cooperation by U.S. officials. It suggests that the hearings are being called at least in part for national catharsis and as an outlet for German rage.

Parliament's airing of the evidence began Thursday, even as fresh revelations continue to stoke public anger. In recent days, Germany's Der Spiegel magazine published further details from Snowden leaks, including evidence of an NSA dossier on Ms. Merkel that allegedly included more than 300 intelligence reports. Though U.S. snooping on Ms. Merkel is not new, the reports served as an ongoing reminder to an already-bitter German public.

In addition, the magazine documented the infiltration of German Internet firms by the British secret service, fueling an ever-expanding plot line here that the Americans were not the only friends eavesdropping on German targets. Indeed, outrage from the Snowden scandal has been far more muted in some parts of Europe, in part because of assumptions by the British, French and other Europeans that their own secret services are not wholly innocent either.

A growing sense of German intelligence vulnerabilities has generated an intensifying debate over whether the country should beef up its own intelligence operations, targeting allies and non-allies alike.

Given Germany's typical post-World War II knee-jerk reaction against anything that could be seen as provocative or aggressive, however, analysts say any such moves are likely to be long in coming, if at all.

"German foreign policy is focused on one topic -- doing things in cooperation," said Marcel Dickow, an international security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Obviously, even with the Snowden [revelations], spying on allies is going to be seen as something that undermines cooperation."

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