Snowden Leaks Spark Controversy in Europe Over NSA Surveillance

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, in for Marco Werman. This is The World. We're not the only ones feeling spied on. Yeah, Edward Snowden's revelations made it clear that the NSA is snooping on our phone and Internet communications, but Snowden also blew the cover on other nations doing the same. Secret government surveillance has become a huge political issue in Germany, too. Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to chastise the US for its overly broad snooping practices, but now Merkel is under fire herself, just two months from a national election, because Snowden's documents also allege that the German government was cooperating with the NSA all along. Constanze Stelzenmuller is with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

Constanze Stelzenmuller: For one, he said that we were being scanned and surveilled on the same level as Iraq and Afghanistan, which is a little bit disturbing for Germans since we just had the presidential visit here. It was also alleged that German embassies and EU representations were being bugged, and that the total of intercepts a month being scanned by the NSA was 500 million, per month. That's a lot of intercepts.

Hills: It's always a tough balance between national security and protecting freedoms in a democracy, but Germany has a complicated history. What are the sensitivities there around this issue?

Stelzenmuller: It's obviously possible to overstate the historical background, but I think for non-Germans it is important to reference. On the one hand there is our pre-Cold War history, the Nazi era, where we had a horrific secret police, the Gestapo, that kept files on everybody and would knock on people's doors in the dark hours of the morning. Then during the Cold War, of course, when Germany was separated into West and East Germany, the East Germans had a horrific surveillance secret police of their own, the Stasi. There is a whole agency and in fact our current president is its first head, a whole agency that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is still devoted to uncovering the whole of the surveillance data that was occurring in Eastern Germany. And of course in Western Germany there were spooks[??] from all walks of the Western Alliance and of course from the Warsaw Pact, because Germany was a front line state in the Cold War.

Hills: So I know German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now calling for the European Union to put protections on data privacy. What's she hoping for?

Stelzenmuller: Well, I think the European Union and European nations always are stronger when they act together, so that's I think an ingrained reflex in Europe to do that. Obviously, different European nations have different surveillance capabilities, different cyber capabilities, and that probably is not going to make it all that easy to achieve consensus. But I would remind you, as a trained lawyer myself, that while people like to point to the Germans as being particularly sensitive, I can tell you that EU data privacy law is extremely restrictive. And so it's really not just German national law, and that would be a basis actually for coming to an agreement. There is another suggestion that's been made that I think is a useful idea, which is to say, well, maybe we need a transatlantic agreement with NATO on what we're going to do with regard to each other and whatnot and to what degree we ought to, as allies and friends, inform each other about what we're doing.

Hills: Constanze, in the US Edward Snowden is taking some heat from some quarters in this country for harming national security. Is he viewed differently in Germany?

Stelzenmuller: Yes, to some degree. I think for the general public that's most concerned about Internet freedom and privacy he is seen as a bit of a hero. That's the general impression one gets. For policy makers more aware of the complexities of national security and what it means when somebody does something like that, I think they're more reserved in their opinion, and that's probably why Edward Snowden did not receive asylum in Germany, political asylum, when he asked for it.

Hills: Constanze Stelzenmuller is with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.