Nine weeks before elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel weathered a media grilling Friday on US online surveillance and her government’s role in it, insisting she was still waiting for answers from Washington.
Merkel remains the frontrunner for the September 22 vote, and a new poll suggests the snooping affair is not yet a major election issue – but the opposition hopes this will change as the media is turning increasingly hostile.
Pressed on the US National Security Agency’s PRISM programme for most of a 100-minute annual summer press conference, Merkel maintained she learnt of it through media reports, was unfamiliar with the details and urged patience.
Merkel stressed that her country “is not a surveillance state” and that “German law applies on German soil” but also conceded that this has its limits in the age of global telecommunication systems.
Pressure has grown for weeks on Merkel over the spying claims made by fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who also said Germany’s BND foreign intelligence service cooperated with the NSA.
The centre-left opposition has charged Merkel broke her oath of office pledge to protect citizens’ right to privacy of communication – a sensitive issue given the history of secret police activities under the Nazi and East German communist regimes.
A survey by public broadcaster ARD found that more than two-thirds of German voters are dissatisfied with the government’s efforts to bring clarity to the murky affair.
However, the same poll also said that, at least so far, this has not dented the Merkel government’s lead as much of the country heads into summer holidays, and that two-thirds said the issue would not strongly affect the way they vote.
The chancellor stressed her achievements in economic management and handling of a recent flood disaster, and declared her centre-right coalition government Germany’s “most successful since reunification” in 1990.
On the NSA affair, Merkel spoke of the threat of global terror and the horrors of 9/11 and said it is normal for secret services to cooperate, mentioning past US intelligence help in locating German kidnap victims abroad.
She also stressed there must be limits to state snooping, and that in some
cases “the ends don’t justify the means”.
At the start of the press event, she sought to dampen hopes that she would clear up all the questions – including whether the German army was informed years ago in Afghanistan of the PRISM programme, as one daily has reported.
“I want the say right away and very clearly that those who came here today expecting me to present the conclusions to our inquiries came here with false expectations,” she said. “The task is not finished.”
When pressed on details, Merkel – whose chancellery oversees the secret services – said: “It’s not my job to familiarise myself with all the details.”
Merkel, who is heading into a two-week vacation, spoke of an eight-point plan in response to the NSA revelations, including seeking to enshrine data protection in EU and international law.
The German and French justice ministers in a joint statement said “people must know which personal data are collected by the telecommunications companies, to what extent these data are transferred to foreign public authorities and for what purposes.”
Despite such initiatives, the German media has grown more hostile to Merkel, who is often voted Germany’s most popular politician.
“I am the boss. I know nothing,” read the headline of a commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, while news portal Spiegel Online ripped into Merkel for “assuming the role of helpless spectator.”
“So far, no opposition party has profited from the scandal, but this could change,” said political scientist Jens Walther of Duesseldorf University. “For three weeks now the opposition has targeted Merkel, and the media has joined in.”
He said “that hasn’t happened before” in the current election campaign and “could become dangerous” for the German leader.”Merkel’s strategy is: I’m staying out of this. She is staying passive. She isn’t making the inquiry her business as the leader. She’s going on holiday.”