German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't used to being on the defensive. That, however, is where she now finds herself after weeks in which the spying scandal centering on overzealous Internet surveillance undertaken by the US intelligence service National Security Agency (NSA) has been dominating the political debate in Germany. Slowly, it is also showing signs of becoming a potential problem for her campaign.
The Social Democrats turned up the volume on their attacks once again over the weekend. SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück even went so far as to accuse Merkel of having violated her oath of office by not having prevented the surveillance.
"As chancellor, Ms. Merkel swore to prevent harm to the German people," he said in an interview with the tabloid Bild am Sonntag. Despite that oath, he said, the rights of Germans to not be spied upon were violated.
Steinbrück also said that German intelligence agency must have known about the extent of NSA surveillance and noted: "Secret services are coordinated by the Chancellery. If you are sitting at the wheel, you carry the responsibility -- whether you have fallen asleep or not."
Steinbrück's comments are just the latest attempt to capitalize on widespread German anger over the surveillance affair, revealed last month by whistleblower Edward Snowden. And the SPD politician seems to be receiving significant assistance in the effort from Merkel herself. While the chancellor has been uncharacteristically pointed in her comments about the NSA, she has also sought to defend the monitoring of Internet data as a useful tool in combating terror.
The uncomfortable balancing act has been on display once again in recent days. In a televised interview with public broadcaster ARD on Sunday night, Merkel was forceful in demanding unified European Union rules on data protection and also that US intelligence agencies adhere to German law in the future.
Merkel said there had been no evidence so far to suggest that the Americans violated German law, but that she expected a "clear assurance" from the US that "German law would be obeyed on German territory."
"We have a great data protection law," Merkel said of German regulations. "But if Facebook is registered in Ireland, then Irish law is valid and therefore we need unified European rules."
At the same time, however, Merkel's government is getting blasted by the opposition over the unconvincing performance of her interior minister, the conservative politician Hans-Peter Friedrich. In the days after the full extent of US surveillance program Prism became clear, Friedrich was extremely reserved in his comments, even saying that he was unable to recognize it as being a scandal. Late last week, however, he flew to the US for meetings with top Washington officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, to discuss American intelligence activities and, by his own account, to "make clear to our American friends" that Berlin is concerned about overzealous surveillance.
Yet even among officials close to the Merkel government, the visit was criticized for being merely symbolic in nature. One top official from a federal ministry told SPIEGEL ONLINE that it was simply a case of "a pro-surveillance official flying to the US to meet like-minded people for an exchange of ideas. Nothing much is likely to result except for expenses."
The opposition went even further, with Steinbrück saying that Friedrich is either "massively naïve and thus incompetent or he has an understanding of our constitution that is more than questionable." He was joined by SPD party colleague Thomas Opperman, a member of the parliamentary committee charged with monitoring German intelligence agencies. "The trip was a disaster," Opperman said. "Minister Friedrich returned empty handed."
Green Party floor leader Jürgen Trittin said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE that "we are dealing with a government that is behaving in an appalling manner. Chancellor Merkel, Interior Minister Friedrich and Foreign Minister (Guido) Westerwelle are behaving like the three monkeys: see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing."
Still, it remains to be seen whether the aggressive criticism will result in rising poll numbers. So far, that has not been the case, with Merkel's party holding firm in public opinion surveys with just over 40 percent of those surveyed saying they plan to vote for the conservatives. Steinbrück's SPD remains well behind, at 26 percent.
And it also remains to be seen for how long the opposition will be able to maintain its black-and-white narrative when it comes to data surveillance concerns. The SPD, for one, already appears to have reached the limits of such a strategy, following demands from the Left and Green parties for a full parliamentary investigation into NSA surveillance practices and German cooperation with the American intelligence agency. Both parties have insisted that such an investigation should look at such cooperation since the beginning of the last decade.
That, however, would also include governments led by the SPD as well as Merkel's first government, in which the SPD was the junior coalition partner. Andrea Nahles, SPD general secretary, was thus hesitant in reacting to the proposal on Monday. She suggested that such an investigative committee could be launched after the elections this fall. "For now, however, it is imperative that the government comes clean," she said.
Furthermore, the tabloid Bild reported on Monday that Germany has benefited greatly in the past from US web surveillance, particularly when it comes to cases involving the abduction of German citizens abroad. Germany's own foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, has several times in the past requested information from the US regarding the victim's last email and telephone activities prior to being abducted, the paper reported. Such data usage is legal under German law, but it also demonstrates, Bild noted, that German authorities were fully aware of US data surveillance practices.
Merkel, on Monday, sought once again to deflect some of the criticism coming from the opposition in recent days. Her spokesman Steffen Seibert reiterated that Merkel continues to insist on "a pledge from the Americans that their intelligence agencies obey German law in Germany." But, he added: "We find ourselves at the beginning of a long process of fact finding."