The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Germans so outraged at U.S. over spying that Merkel will raise the issue directly with Obama


Revelations over U.S. Internet spying programs have raised such outrage in Germany that Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman says she will raise the issue with President Obama when he visits Berlin next week for a trip that was supposed to celebrate 50 years of U.S.-German friendship since John F. Kennedy "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

Merkel's pledge reflects anger not just among German citizens but fellow government officials as well, part of a larger trend of European reaction against the spying programs, reported by The Washington Post's Michael Birnbaum, that is particularly severe in Germany. The country's justice minister wrote a guest op-ed for Der Spiegel's Web site suggesting that the U.S. was backsliding on basic freedoms and calling the program so "alarming" that Germany has a responsibility to address it.

"The more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is," she wrote. "The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the U.S. administration itself is paramount at this point. All facts must be put on the table."

Most pointedly, Reuters' Noah Barkin reports that a German legislator named Markus Ferber who sits on the European Parliament and is a member of a Merkel-allied party called the program "American-style Stasi methods," a reference to East Germany's dreaded secret police, whose name is still closely associated with the worst abuses of the now-defunct communist regime.

Obama is popular in Germany, but it's tough to overstate the country's sensitivity to electronic surveillance, particularly by the government. The Stasi routinely invaded citizens' privacy, using everything from microphones installed in homes to secret informants, to find and root out dissent and activists.

The German government has worked aggressively in recent years to protect citizens' privacy online, sparring with tech giants like Facebook and Google to protect user data way above and beyond what other countries have done. A German court ordered Facebook to delete any data it had collected from German users' photos in developing its facial recognition tool, for example. And German opposition to Google's Street View, a program by which it maps out public streets with cameras mounted on cars, was so fierce that the company abandoned the project entirely.

Thilo Weichert, the head of Germany's influential Independent Center for Privacy Protection, explained to the BBC, "In Germany we had the experience with the Nazi regime, we had the experience with the German Democratic Republic, and we have a big reluctance concerning the gathering of data for discrimination or suppression or persecution."

A German privacy analyst named Carsten Casper also told the British broadcaster that Germany's history has played a big role in its unique sensitivities to privacy. "For almost 40 years people were under surveillance and it's obvious that this makes people very nervous when it comes to privacy," he said.