SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. Justice Department has charged Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, with espionage and theft of government property. His charges stem from his (technical difficulties) leaking details of an NSA surveillance program. He is believed to be in Hong Kong. The U.S. has asked officials there to arrest him on a provisional warrant.
Reaction to the NSA's spying on foreign Internet communications put a damper on President Obama's trip to Berlin this past week. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and other officials want to know more about what the NSA has been hearing and looking at. The backlash was more muted than what may have been expected. One reason: the Germans are apparently carrying out similar surveillance.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: At a recent new conference here in Berlin, President Obama tried reassuring Europeans that the controversial prison program is not violating people's civil rights.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not a situation in which we are rifling through, you know, the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else.
NELSON: Nor are phone calls routinely listened to, the President said. Any leads to potential terrorists are followed up only if agents have obtained a warrant, he added. Chancellor Angela Merkel politely made it clear that is not enough.
CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She said German laws dictate that people not only feel safe but free, and that her office and the German Interior Ministry would follow up with their U.S. counterparts.
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. Martin Kaul is political editor at Die Tageszeitung, a left-leaning daily newspaper in Berlin.
MARTIN KAUL: The message 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.
NELSON: Also of concern is that the U.S. apparently didn't ask German authorities or any other agencies in Europe for permission to do this surveillance in the first place, says Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar.
PETER SCHAAR: The transfer to U.S. authorities have to be authorized and there is not such an authorization, so far as I know.
NELSON: Some German's question why their government isn't doing more about it, says Tageszeitung editor Kaul.
KAUL: 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 knows only about it from the newspapers.
NELSON: 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 is necessary to protect their country from terrorist attacks, Kaul says.
KAUL: We know that in the past we get those kind of data and we know that our government did not really ask for where they're coming from.
NELSON: Then came the revelations this week, first reported by Der Spiegel magazine, that Germany 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 to and from abroad.
The improvements could increase that number to 20 percent, the magazine said. Germany's top court also upheld the right of security agencies to maintain an anti-terror database containing sensitive personal information about German citizens. Data protection commissioner Schaar says it's a disturbing trend, but that people should keep that in perspective.
SCHAAR: I'm 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.
NELSON: Whoever's doing the surveillance, several Wi-Fi users NPR spoke to at cafes here 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. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News Berlin.