Perhaps most troubling was how quickly the government backed down on the claims that the surveillance helped foil terror plots. Gisela Piltz, a Liberal Party member of the Bundestag intelligence committee, said she could not give exact details of what took place in the secret hearing but noted: “There was a clear discrepancy between the previously reported number of foiled terror attacks and the number we talked about.”
And even those cases raised questions. One of them, commonly known as the Sauerland Cell Plot, involved an alleged conspiracy in 2007 to detonate a series of car bombs in crowded places. Piltz was involved in a Bundestag study of what took place. The goal of the would-be bombers was to surpass the death and injured toll from commuter train attacks in Madrid in 2004, which killed 191 and wounded another 1,800.
The conspirators, who allegedly included two Germans, had gathered nearly a ton of liquid explosives.
News reports at the time mentioned an unnamed U.S. intelligence official saying that cellphone calls by the two Germans had been intercepted. But those calls were said to have been made when the Germans were leaving a terror camp in Pakistan – an entirely different scenario from the current monitoring program, which captures data from everyday citizens by casting a worldwide net.
Piltz said even that participation by U.S. intelligence agencies remains unverified.
The other case, involving four men with al Qaida connections arrested in Dusseldorf while allegedly preparing to make a shrapnel bomb to detonate at an undecided location, also raised questions about NSA involvement. During the trial, prosecutors said they were alerted to the cell by an informant, after which they studied emails from the four. But such targeted surveillance is not the issue in the NSA programs, one of which, PRISM, reportedly taps into the computers of users of nine Internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo.
Defending NSA practices, Friedrich noted that security is a “super fundamental right.” As such it outranks fundamental rights such as privacy. German newspapers were scathing in their assessment, calling Friedrich the “idiot in charge.”
Piltz said that while terrorism is a real threat, the U.S. monitoring programs have done little to prevent it.
“Germans are not safer because of U.S. espionage,” Piltz said. “It is true Germany has been lucky not to have suffered a terror attack, but there has to be a balance. We cannot sacrifice freedom for security, and when in doubt I would always opt for freedom.”
McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich in Berlin contributed to this report.