Germany opens hearings on U.S. spying


The German parliamentary investigation committee on NSA surveillance meets for the first time in Berlin on Thursday. The committee aims to shed some light on the extent and background of spying by foreign intelligence agencies in Germany. (Daniel /European Pressphoto Agency)

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 here last year. But now, the lengthy committee investigations could keep the spotlight on leaks by the former National Security Agency contractor for a year or two to come.

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

Given the potential for angering Washington, analysts think Merkel’s government will find a way to sidestep such a move. Nevertheless, the push to give Snowden his day here 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 in Germany.

“Mass surveillance of citizens will not be accepted,” Clemens Binninger, the committee chairman, who is a member of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, said at the start of the hearings 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 the Snowden leaks, including evidence of an NSA dossier on Merkel that allegedly included more than 300 intelligence reports. Although U.S. snooping on Merkel is not new, the reports served as a continuing reminder for 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 plotline 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 intelligence vulnerabilities here has generated an intensifying debate over whether Germany should begin to beef up its 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.”

However, the hearings could be just the beginning here.

A top German prosecutor is still weighing whether to open a criminal investigation into the affair, which could further damage ties between Washington and Berlin. And there is no mistaking the lingering anger of German lawmakers, particularly those clamoring to bring Snowden to Berlin to testify.

Such a move is considered a long shot, in part because it would create fresh tensions at a time when Europe and the United States are trying to maintain a common front on the Russian-Ukraine crisis. But some here seem to think that bringing Snowden to Berlin is exactly the kind of thumb-nosing the Americans deserve.

Snowden is the “key to clarification of the NSA spying scandal,” Hans-Christian Ströbele, a politician from the Green Party who met with Snowden in Russia in October, told reporters in Berlin on Thursday.

Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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