BERLIN -- German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich is backing off his earlier assertion that the Obama administration’s NSA monitoring of Internet accounts had prevented five terror attacks in Germany, raising questions about other claims concerning the value of the massive monitoring programs revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Friedrich had made the assertion about the number of attacks that the NSA programs – which scoop up records from cellphone and Internet accounts – had helped to avert after a brief visit to the United States last week. But on Tuesday, he told a German parliamentary panel, “It is relatively difficult to count the number of terror attacks that didn’t occur.” And on Wednesday, he was publically referring to just two foiled attacks, at least one and possibly both of which appeared to have little to do with the NSA’s surveillance programs.
The questions about the programs’ value in thwarting attacks in Germany come as some members of the U.S. Congress have told Obama officials that the programs exceeded what Congress authorized when it passed laws that the administration is arguing allowed the collection of vast amounts of information on cellphone and Internet email accounts.
In Germany, the concern is that the NSA is capturing and storing as many as 500 million electronic communications each month, but Germans are getting little if anything back for what is seen as an immoral and illegal invasion of privacy.
Friedrich spent July 11-12 in the United States for meetings with U.S. officials on the NSA programs that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had requested. The point of the meetings was to gather information that would calm a building German angst over the spy scandal.
Instead of being reassured, however, opposition politicians and commentators now are talking about the arrogance of the U.S. application of “winner’s power” (a reference to the political authority the United States had here during the Cold War, when Germany was divided between east and west, and West Germany leaned heavily on America for support), and how traditionally strong relations between the two countries have been harmed by the scandal.
“German-American relations are at risk,” said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a Green Party member of the influential German intelligence oversight committee in the country’s legislature, the Bundestag, which is dominated by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “The longer it takes to uncover the facts after this long silence, the more problematic it becomes. No one even bothers to deny what’s been said. It could be that German or (European Union) courts will have to deal with this.”
Even as emotions build, NSA plans for expanding a listening station in Germany were revealed this week, raising more questions.
Stroebele spoke Thursday to McClatchy, addressing Friedrich’s official report, delivered behind closed doors to the Bundestag committee. He said Friedrich received little information from the United States in his quick trip to Washington.
“We’re lucky to have had Snowden,” Stroebele said. “Without him, this surveillance that is not permissible under international law would have continued for a long time. In Germany, there are prison terms for such spying.”