The German government today held out the extraordinary prospect of a direct meeting with NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden to help resolve a diplomatic row between Berlin and Washington over the US intelligence agency’s unbridled spying activities.
The idea was put forward by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Interior Minister following abortive attempts by Berlin officials to obtain a satisfactory explanation from Washington about NSA spying in Germany, including revelations that the agency had bugged the German leader’s mobile phone for over a decade.
Responding to an offer by Mr Snowden to come to Berlin to give details about NSA spying, the Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said: “ If the message is that Mr Snowden wants to give us information then we’ll gladly accept that. Every explanation, everything in terms of information and facts that we can get is good,” he added.
Mr Friedrich did not say which government officials might meet Mr Snowden, who has been a fugitive in Moscow on account of his whistleblowing activities, since the summer. But he said : “We will find a way, if Mr Snowden is ready to talk.” However Anatoly Kucherena, Mr Snowden’s lawyer, insisted yesterday that it would be impossible for his client to leave Russia.
His remarks followed a surprise meeting between Mr Snowden and the veteran German Green Party MP Christian Ströbele in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the NSA spying row. On his return to Berlin yesterday, Mr Ströbele held a press conference and insisted that Mr Snowden was “an important witness” for Germany who was ready to help clear up the NSA spying affair.
“He can envisage coming to Germany if he is given guarantees that he can remain in Germany or in another comparable country and that he is safe there,” Mr Ströbele said.
In a letter to the German government and distributed at the press conference, Mr Snowden wrote that he had faced a “severe and sustained campaign of persecution” which had forced him to leave his family and his home.
He added: “I look forward to speaking with you in your country.”
However Mr Snowden’s lawyer said that his client could only be questioned by German officials in Russia. He said that if Mr Snowden left the country he would lose his current status which guarantees him political asylum until June next year.
Mr Friedrich’s offer to Mr Snowden represented a U-turn for the German government which had previously ruled out the idea of questioning the NSA whistleblower.
Earlier this week Germany dispatched top intelligence officials to Washington in an attempt to clear up the affair after an angry Chancellor Merkel complained that spying on friends was “simply not on”.
However German officials say that they have so far failed to receive a satisfactory explanation from Washington and that the affair remains unresolved.
Thomas Oppermann, a leading Social Democrat MP and a likely member of Ms Merkel’s future grand coalition government, said he would welcome Mr Snowden’s appearance in Berlin provided it did not “completely ruin” relations between Berlin and Washington.
Washington has already issued Germany with a request for Mr Snowden’s extradition. Should he travel to Berlin, Ms Merkel’s government would have to decide whether or not to accede to the US government’s demands or offer Mr Snowden the possibility of temporary political asylum.
Concern that such a prospect could dramatically worsen the already serious diplomatic row between Berlin and Washington prompted German government officials to tone down Mr Friedrich’s remarks yesterday. A spokesman for his office said that the government was not “actively seeking” to contact Mr Snowden.
Spying on friends: What the NSA saw
Berlin is seeking answers from Washington over allegations that the NSA spied on the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, reportedly monitoring her phone. Responding to the reports last week, Ms Merkel pointedly said: “Spying between friends, that’s just not done.”
The US ambassador was called in for a meeting by officials in Madrid after a report that the NSA collected data on 60 million phones calls in Spain over the course of a month. The picture was muddied by subsequent reports claiming that European spy agencies had, in fact, aided the NSA by helping collect records and warzones and outside their borders.
French media reported that the NSA had monitored more than 70 million items of phone data, again over a period of about a month in late 2012. Again the US ambassador was called in for a meeting, while the President, François Hollande said: “Trust has to be restored and reinforced.”
The President, Dilma Rousseff, called off a planned state visit to the US following reports that the NSA had spied on her and on a state oil company. The NSA was also said to have monitored the communications of certain other Brazilian officials. In light of the revelation, Ms Rousseff’s office said the conditions were not right for her to make a planned trip to the US in October.