Protesters display a cutout figure of President Obama in Berlin on Wednesday. Germans were protesting the National Security Agency's eavesdropping on foreign communication.
Protesters display a cutout figure of President Obama in Berlin on Wednesday. Germans were protesting the National Security Agency's eavesdropping on foreign communication. Gero Breloer/AP
Revelations of widespread U.S. spying on foreign Internet communications put a damper on President Obama's first state visit to Berlin. The German chancellor and other officials there say they want to know more about what the National Security Agency is looking at.
Yet the backlash has been more muted than expected. One reason is that the German government is doing similar surveillance.
At a recent news conference in Berlin, Obama tried reassuring Europeans that the controversial Prism program is not violating people's civil rights.
"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else," Obama said.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparred, politely, over U.S. spying on foreign communications during their joint news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin on Wednesday. But Germany is quietly carrying out its own domestic spying.
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparred, politely, over U.S. spying on foreign communications during their joint news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin on Wednesday. But Germany is quietly carrying out its own domestic spying. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Nor are phone calls routinely listened to, the president said. Any leads to potential terrorists are followed up only if agents obtain a warrant, he added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel politely made it clear that is not enough.
She said German laws dictate that people not only feel safe, but also free and that her office and the German Interior Ministry would follow up with their U.S. counterparts.
Questions Of Permission, Protest
Germans who were raised in East Germany like Merkel were especially rankled by revelations that the U.S. was spying on private communications without their approval. They recall life under Communist authorities who heavily intruded into people's lives, just as the Nazis did before them.
"The message that Mr. Obama should take from the streets if he isn't getting it from the German government is that we are not accepting the attack on those fundamental rights here in Germany," says Martin Kaul, political editor at Die Tageszeitung, a left-leaning daily newspaper in Berlin.
Also of concern is that the U.S. apparently didn't ask German authorities or any other agencies in Europe for permission to do the surveillance in the first place, says Peter Schaar, Germany's data-protection commissioner.
"The transfers to U.S. authorities have to be authorized, and there is no such an authorization so far as I know," he says.
Kaul says some Germans question why their government isn't doing more about it.
"So imagine we have an interior minister who is basically responsible to care about the constitutional rights of the German citizens. And if you ask him what he knows about the attack on these constitutional rights, he tells you that he only knows about it from the newspapers," he says.
Kaul says he believes it's because the U.S. is actually doing German authorities a favor — especially when Washington shares what it collects.
Just like the American government, German officials quietly justify increased surveillance as necessary to protect their country from terrorist attacks, Kaul says.
"We know that in the past we got those kind of data and we know that our government did not really ask for where they are coming from," he says.
Germany's Own Surveillance Efforts
Then came the revelations this week — first reported by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine — that the German government is spending more than $130 million over the next five years to beef up its own online surveillance.
Currently, antiquated technology limits access by the country's foreign intelligence agency to 5 percent of online communications that go in and out of the country. The improvements could increase that number to 20 percent, the magazine said.
Germany's top court also recently upheld the right of security agencies to maintain an anti-terror database containing sensitive personal information about German citizens.
Schaar, the data-protection commissioner, says it's a disturbing trend, but people should keep it in perspective.
"I am concerned about this, but on the other hand, this common database is very, very small compared with the figure reported recently on the surveillance actions by U.S. authorities," he says.
Whoever is doing the surveillance, several WiFi users NPR spoke to at cafes in Berlin say they are willing to put up with it. One was German military medic Raik Mueller.
He says it's not good, but necessary if Germans want security.