Merkel Again Addresses U.S. Surveillance

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BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking a third term in office, had hoped to focus her re-election campaign on domestic priorities like energy and health care, but revelations of far-reaching American surveillance programs and persistent questions about whether they may have violated the rights of German citizens continue to complicate those plans.

On Friday, for the second time in little more than a week, Ms. Merkel, 58, was forced to publicly address questions about the extent to which the United States might have been listening in on Germans' telephone calls and monitoring their Internet communications. "We are examining what happened, whether this is the tip of the iceberg, or less serious, or something else -- what is true," she said, responding to reporters' questions at her annual news conference before breaking for summer vacation.

Although Ms. Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union maintain a comfortable lead in polls in advance of the presidential election in September, the scandal appears for the first time to be chipping away at Germans' confidence in her leadership. More than two-thirds of Germans said they were dissatisfied with her government's attempts to answer allegations that the United States used its massive surveillance program to spy on Germans, a survey by Infratest Dimap for the ARD public network showed.

"I am the head of government, and consequently, I have to make sure that here in our country German law has been upheld," Ms. Merkel told reporters Friday, making a fist to drive home her point. "In Germany, as in Europe, the right of the powerful does not override the power of the law."

At the same time, Ms. Merkel warned that no government could guarantee its citizens' rights beyond national borders, a problem brought to light by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency of the United States, who revealed the agency's surveillance of virtually all telephone calls to the United States from Germany as well as e-mails of foreigners using major American Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and Skype.

The chancellor said it had concerned her for "quite some time" that Germany and the European Union lacked the technological prowess and possibilities to compete in the world of information technology on a global level. She pointed to the decision in the late 1960s in Europe to create Airbus to answer the dominance of the American giant Boeing in the aircraft industry as a possible model for the level of action needed to make Europe competitive. "Otherwise we will become dependent," the chancellor said.

The revelations have also spurred new interest in seeing European regulations on data privacy strengthened, with Germany signing onto a joint declaration with France to push for more safeguards for European Union citizens across the bloc's 28 member states.

"It is not without reason that Facebook has its European headquarters in Ireland," Ms. Merkel said, pointing to an example that has caused Germany more than a few headaches as its data security officials seek to bring Facebook in line with Germany's data privacy regulations.

With little more than two months to go until the September election, the chancellor finds herself in a difficult situation vis-à-vis the United States, one of Germany's most longstanding and important postwar allies. For decades the Americans held a special spot in the hearts of generations of Germans, who still associate them with their first taste of chocolate, bringing rock 'n' roll to their shattered country and later being an important supporter of reunification in 1990.

All that much greater has been the dismay at the idea that Washington, instead of viewing Germany as one of its privileged partners, with whom it shares information, might be monitoring vast amounts of its data. Last week, the chancellor sent her interior minister to hold talks with his American counterpart, who promised to release certain classified information about the surveillance programs, but gave no indication of how long the declassification process could take.

"I can only acknowledge that our American partners need time for their review," Ms. Merkel said when pressed for a timeline of when an answer might be expected.

She expressed confidence that German-United States relations could withstand the strain, but made clear that Berlin expects an honest answer. "A good friendship can withstand a difficult situation," the chancellor said. "Sweeping things under the table would damage things more than simply being upfront about them."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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