Asylum Debate Germany Wants to Question Snowden

The German government refuses to grant Edward Snowden political asylum, with authorities instead seeking to establish contact with him in Moscow. The strategy is unlikely to benefit either side.
German Green Party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele (right) met with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in Moscow last Thursday.

German Green Party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele (right) met with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in Moscow last Thursday.

Foto: Irina Oho/ dpa

Since revelations emerged two weeks ago that America's National Security Agency had long spied on Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone communications, calls have been growing for whistleblower Edward Snowden to be offered political asylum in Germany.

The calls are being met with rejection at top levels of the government. On Wednesday, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said Snowden  doesn't have the right to asylum in Germany because he is not the victim of political persecution. Instead legal options are being explored for Snowden's possible questioning in Moscow.

The parliamentary group of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats also oppose demands for asylum, and even leaders of Merkel's future government coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- which over the summer was one of the loudest critics of NSA spying  -- now recognize the potential problems associated with any offer of asylum. Indeed, it is highly unlikely Germany will offer the former NSA contractor asylum.

"At the moment, a questioning (of Snowden) in Germany is not up for discussion," said Thomas Oppermann, the chairman of the parliamentary committee responsible for intelligence issues. The politician, a member of the SPD, said officials in Berlin instead wanted "to see if a questioning in Moscow is possible."

Even if the government were to question Snowden in Moscow, though, it is unlikely the endeavor would bear much fruit. Hans-Christian Ströbele, the Green Party member who last week traveled to Moscow to meet with Snowden, told the same parliamentary committee after his meeting that the whistleblower probably wouldn't say much. He also repeated to journalists what the American told him in Moscow -- namely that Snowden doesn't want to be questioned in Moscow. Instead he wants to be offered asylum or the right to stay in Germany. If he were given either of those, then he would be prepared to testify before an investigative committee or even justice officials.

Snowden Wouldn't Have Full Control over Disclosures

Without offering more specific details, Ströbele said there were "serious reasons" that would make it difficult for Snowden to testify in Moscow. They would also complicate efforts by the Federal Prosecutor's Office to question Snowden in the Russian capital as a potential witness in any case against American government spying on Germany. The Green Party politician said that if the Russian side were even to permit such questioning, it might also impose conditions on any of the issues to be discussed.

In other words, Snowden wouldn't have full control over his disclosures. Members of the Parliamentary Control Panel are nevertheless calling for German authorities to establish contact with Snowden.

By seeking to question Snowden, the German government is also buying time for itself in the asylum debate because bringing the whistleblower to Germany to testify would be a horror scenario for the current government as well as the future one. Already tense relations with Washington have fallen to a low point in the wake of revelations the NSA spied on Merkel . And government sources have warned that those calling for asylum for Snowden are opening up a hornet's nest for German foreign policy.

There are also prickly domestic considerations. The United States issued an arrest warrant in early July against Snowden that could ultimately result in his extradition from Germany. The situation could quickly grow far more complicated if Snowden were to enter the country.

How Much Insight Can Testimony Provide?

So now the intention is for Snowden to be questioned in Moscow, but how that will take place is still unclear. There is still no formal NSA investigative committee in the German parliament and it is possible one won't even be established. Only two other options remain: Either representatives of the German Embassy can attempt to make contact with Snowden in Moscow, or the Federal Public Prosecutor's office could request to question him as a witness.

In order for that to happen, though, there must first be a basis for the questioning. The Federal Prosecutor's office in Karlsruhe has launched a preliminary investigation in connection with the NSA scandal in Germany, but it is still an open question whether this will lead to a formal investigation. Questioning of Snowden as a witness in Moscow could only happen once that is cleared up, and then only if Russian authorities permit it.

Green Party politician Ströbele is skeptical about how much insight Snowden's testimony, if it takes place in the Russian capital, might provide. He believes it would only be possible for Snowden to deliver further details about the NSA's work in Germany -- before an investigative committee in parliament, for example.

But the situation is likely to be viewed differently by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). In addition to Interior Minister Friedrich, the deputy chairs of the conservatives' joint parliamentary group, Günter Krings and Michael Kretschmer, both oppose offering asylum to Snowden. In a position paper released on Wednesday, they outline some changes they are calling for as a result of the NSA affair, such as better equipping German counterintelligence after a "No-Spy Agreement" is reached between the US and the European Union.

They don't expect much new information from Snowden, who was not mentioned by name in their position paper. Kretschmer has doubts about what new details a questioning of the US citizen would bring. "The knowledge gained would be limited," he said. "We already have the crucial information."

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