BERLIN (AP) — Two months before national elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself besieged by questions about U.S. spying, insisting Friday that she has not been remiss in confronting the Americans about their surveillance activities.
The chancellor’s traditional 1 ½-hour summer news conference was dominated by questions about National Security Agency snooping, including allegations by NSA leaker Edward Snowden that the U.S. has been spying on its European allies.
Merkel’s opponents in the Sept. 22 parliamentary elections have seized on the issue, asserting that she has not done enough to protect Germans’ privacy. Although polls show Merkel with a comfortable lead, the issue has created turbulence in what had looked like a smooth glide to a third term as chancellor.
Protecting personal data is an especially sensitive topic in Germany because of abuses by communist East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, and the Nazis’ Gestapo.
Merkel insisted her government is awaiting answers from the U.S. to detailed questions about the NSA’s activities and hopes to receive them “as soon as possible” — but with no specific deadline.
“I have to take note that our American partners need time for the examination … It wouldn’t help to have an answer that would later turn out not to be truthful,” she said. “So I prefer to wait.”
Still, she insisted that her government was not trying to stall until Germany’s elections are over, insisting that “Sept. 22 is not a date that I am trying to get past.”
Last week, Merkel sent her interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, to Washington to confer with top U.S. officials. Friedrich came away pointing to the importance of intelligence in preventing attacks — prompting Merkel’s center-left opponents to intensify criticism over what they portrayed as an insufficient effort to protect Germans’ personal data.
Her opponents also are questioning assertions by Merkel and other officials that they knew nothing before Snowden’s disclosures. The government has been peppered this week with questions over details of those programs, with Snowden’s allegations overshadowing such issues as Europe’s laggard economy.
“My job is to ensure people in Germany know that German law applies on German soil, and that applies to everyone here,” Merkel said. Still, she added, “it is not my job to familiarize myself with the details of PRISM,” referring to one of the NSA programs.
Merkel has also sought to keep the issue from damaging relations with the U.S.
“With every day it becomes clear to the United States that this is important for us,” she said. “Germany is not a nation of surveillance. Germany is a nation of freedom.”
Following the press conference, Merkel’s center-left challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, termed her comments a sign of “alarming cluelessness and helplessness.”
“I get the impression that she is simply sitting waiting in the chancellery for our American partners to inform her,” he told broadcaster RBB Inforadio.
Also Thursday, justice ministers from Germany and France signed a joint declaration pushing for new rules to protect EU citizens’ privacy rights and punish violators. At a meeting in Lithuania, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the European push for tougher data protection rules is “an anti-PRISM action.”
Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed reporting.
Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz