August 25, 2013
Surveillance Revelations Shake U.S.-German Ties
By ALISON SMALE
BERLIN -- Continuing revelations, based on documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, of sweeping American digital surveillance around the world are rattling the close ties between the United States and Germany.
In a country scarred by Nazi and Communist pasts, the issue is prompting not just a debate about privacy and data protection, but also demands from German officials that the Berlin-Washington security partnership be put on a new footing.
The latest of the Snowden revelations came on Sunday, when the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a report, citing documents Mr. Snowden obtained while he worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency, that said the agency had succeeded in tapping into videoconferences at the United Nations in New York, into the European Union's mission to the United Nations, and into other diplomatic missions around the world.
Evidence that the United States has been spying extensively on its allies as well as on its enemies has been among the most significant revelations from Mr. Snowden, along with widespread government surveillance of the telephone and digital communications of American citizens without warrants.
The Der Spiegel article on Sunday was not the first to reveal American eavesdropping at the United Nations, which many diplomats have assumed for years was taking place. But it added extensive new detail to what had previously been reported, and it may compound the frictions developing between the United States and its allies over the issue -- especially with Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the midst of an election campaign.
Top German officials traveled to Washington this month to press an unusual demand: to negotiate a new formal agreement with the United States that neither side will spy on the other.
The initiative was confirmed in two sittings of the German parliamentary committee in charge of overseeing the country's intelligence agencies. Ronald Pofalla, who runs Ms. Merkel's Chancellery, told the committee on Aug. 12 that the two countries were working on just such an agreement. He gave no details, and none leaked out afterward in German media reports.
Neither side will say anything official about the proposed accord. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic say that even if such an agreement proves to be feasible, it will probably have to wait until after the German elections on Sept. 22.
It was not known whether Der Spiegel planned to publish further revelations from Snowden documents before then. Opinion polls in Germany suggest that Ms. Merkel's strong standing with voters has not been damaged by the issue, nor has it displaced the weather or vacations as topics of summer conversation here.
But in the eyes of a skeptical, privacy-minded German public, at least, Der Spiegel's report may have undercut the significance of the proposed accord by noting that the eavesdropping described in the Snowden documents would have violated agreements that the United States has made.
The report said that the N.S.A. succeeded last year in cracking an encrypted video teleconferencing system at the United Nations, and even stumbled across Chinese spies who were apparently invading the same communications system. The magazine also published a floor plan, evidently from N.S.A. files, of the third floor of the European mission to the United Nations on Third Avenue in New York, showing the locations of offices and computer servers. Der Spiegel suggested that the spying on allies and the United Nations made President Obama's defense of surveillance programs as a counterterrorism effort seem misleading at best.
For the German government, the whole affair is frustrating. One senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity argued that Ms. Merkel had generally done a good job of keeping foreign affairs and controversy out of domestic politics, only to have Mr. Snowden's revelations capture world attention just as she was preparing to receive Mr. Obama in Berlin in June, depart on vacation in July and open the final stage of her election campaign in August.
With Mr. Obama at her side on June 19, Ms. Merkel, who is said by several well-informed people to have very much wanted the president to come to Berlin before the election, kept the emphasis on cooperation. She cited a well-known instance in which a tip from American intelligence helped thwart a potential terrorist attack in Germany.
By early July, however, United States-German ties were under strain once more, after Der Spiegel, citing documents obtained through Mr. Snowden, reported that American intelligence agencies regularly examined huge volumes of digital information traveling in and out of Germany.
Exasperated officials on both sides lamented privately that security restrictions kept them from being able to offer more details to back up general reassurances that the German public was not under sweeping surveillance by the United States.
Ms. Merkel sent at least two high-level delegations to Washington to press for the new accord. It seems that prompted Mr. Obama to say at his Aug. 9 news conference "to others around the world" that he wanted "to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people."
The weekly newspaper Die Zeit noted in its latest edition that the political storm in Germany appeared to be calming down, though Mr. Snowden continued to draw praise from respected figures like the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who called him a "hero of the 21st century" in a television interview last week.
But the same day, the British police detained David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has been a main conduit for Mr. Snowden's revelations. The Guardian, which has published articles by Mr. Greenwald, then revealed that British intelligence agents had overseen the destruction of computer hard drives at the newspaper's offices.
The two incidents ignited fresh outrage in Germany, where data protection laws are strict, and jealously guarded by officials and consumers alike.
Journalists like Mathias Muller von Blumencron, a former editor of the online edition of Der Spiegel, and Stefan Schulz, of the online edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said that the election campaign had blunted what could have been a more full-throated discussion of government surveillance, cooperation with the United States and the balance between civil rights and security needs in Western democracy. "If we had had this discussion last year," with the elections less imminent, "it could have been more fruitful," Mr. Schulz said.
Germany's privacy laws and public sensitivity to privacy issues have made it an attractive base for hacker activists like Jacob Appelbaum and for Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who helped bring Mr. Greenwald and Mr. Snowden together. A political movement called the Pirate Party won seats in Parliament in 2011 on a platform focused on Internet freedom.
Mr. Schulz noted that groups like the Pirate Party and the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin had been talking for years about the technical possibility of widespread government surveillance in Germany.
And the German news media questioned the wisdom of The Guardian in allowing the authorities into its offices. Something is wrong, Die Zeit argued in an editorial, when a country like Britain -- whose closeness to the United States has been stressed in coverage of the affair -- forgets the difference between journalism and terrorism.
While the debate has continued, Ms. Merkel has been out campaigning. At a stop Friday evening in the Ruhr-area town of Recklinghausen, a group of about 40 jeering Pirate Party members waved a large banner proclaiming that "citizens' rights are not negotiable" and saying "never again a surveillance state!"
"We hope we got more attention for our concerns," said Claudia Steimann, 40, a Pirate activist. "The chancellor almost never says anything about politics, or what she wants to do."
Certainly Ms. Merkel's main opponents, the Social Democrats, have found it hard to make hay of the Snowden affair. One of their leaders, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had Mr. Profalla's job running the Chancellery in 2002 when German and American agencies tightened their cooperation after the Sept. 11 attacks, which were planned partly on German soil. Mr. Steinmeier was later foreign minister in Ms. Merkel's first coalition government. Peer Steinbruck, her current challenger, was finance minister in that same cabinet.
Scott Shane, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.