BERLIN — Germany’s chancellor will raise the issue of NSA’s eavesdropping on European communications when she meets President Obama here next week — the latest sign of the international backlash over America’s sweeping electronic surveillance programs.
Obama has defended the once-secret programs that sweep up to an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day and amass Internet data from U.S. providers, saying they are a necessary defense against terrorism. He assured Americans on Friday that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”
That has given little assurance to Germans and other foreigners, who routinely use U.S.-based Internet sites for voice and data communications. European nations often have much stricter privacy laws than those in the U.S., and their citizens defend those privacy rights with more vigor.
In Brussels, senior European Union officials said they would also question their American counterparts about the impact of such programs on the privacy of EU citizens during a trans-Atlantic ministerial meeting in Dublin starting Thursday.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters on Monday that Chancellor Angela Merkel would question Obama about the NSA program when he’s in Berlin on June 18 for his first visit to the German capital as U.S. president. The issue could tarnish a visit that both sides had hoped would reaffirm strong German-American ties.
Germany’s Interior Ministry said it had already been in contact with U.S. officials to determine whether there had been any infringement of German citizens’ privacy — considered an almost-sacred right in a country with a history of deep privacy infringements under Nazi and East German governments.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to assure Parliament that allegations that the British government had used information provided by the Americans to circumvent British laws were “baseless.”
“Our agencies practice and uphold U.K. law at all times,” he said, “even when dealing with information from outside the U.K.”
NSA’s capability to monitor a vast array of international communications is a product of the Cold War, when the agency used monitoring sites in Germany, Britain and other countries to spy on communications within the Soviet Union and its East European allies.
Ironically, one of the most important sites was located on German soil. The site, known as Teufelsberg or “Devil’s Mountain,” sat atop an artificial hill in West Berlin until the facility was closed after the reunification of Germany.
Since the end of the Cold War, questions about U.S. surveillance have been raised before, most notably in the late 1990s when the European Parliament expressed concern that the U.S.-run ECHELON surveillance program could be used for industrial espionage directed against Europe or other countries.
The German Commercial Internet Exchange, located in Frankfurt, is the world’s largest data exchange point, processing information from around the world.
Even before the latest revelations, the European Commission said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had raised privacy issues with her U.S. counterparts in April.
“This case shows that a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint, but a fundamental right,” Reding said Monday in a reaction to the revelations.
The European Parliament will hold a debate Tuesday to discuss the revelations with the European Commission, the 27-nation bloc’s executive arm.
“We have always been firm on data protection within the EU and when negotiating with third countries, including the US,” said caucus leader Guy Verhofstadt of the Alde group of liberal parties. “It would be unacceptable and would need swift action from the EU if indeed the U.S. National Security Agency were processing European data without permission.”
In Germany, privacy regulations are especially strict.
Three years ago Germany’s top court overturned a law that would have required telecommunications providers to routinely store users’ connection data and provide it to the security services upon request. The court said that this would enable massive ‘fishing expeditions’ among innocent citizens’ private data. Parliament is now discussing a revision of the law.
A panel of jurists must decide each time the German security services request a wiretap of an individual’s communications, making mass surveillance measures virtually impossible.
Germany’s foreign intelligence service BND is allowed to do spot checks on foreign communications, which are then filtered using keywords. If a keyword appears, the call or email is recorded.
A German court ruled that while the practice is constitutional, the individuals affected should be informed in a timely fashion that their messages had been intercepted.
Associated Press correspondents Cassandra Vinograd in London, Frank Jordans, Geir Moulson and Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.