Peer Steinbrück, Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger in Germany's September general election, called for a suspension of trans-Atlantic free trade talks over the weekend in response to fresh allegations of spying by the National Security Agency, the US intelligence service, published by SPIEGEL.
"I would interrupt the negotiations until the Americans say if German government offices and European institutions are bugged or wiretapped," Steinbrück, who is running for the center-left Social Democrats, said during an interview with German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday. Steinbrück also said he would like to know if the United States is "siphoning off economically relevant data from German companies."
Negotiations over a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement between the US and the European Union commenced in July. By then, reporting on the NSA's mass spying on European and German citizens had already begun and had threatened to overshadow the high-profile talks. Steinbrück has also been critical of the handling of the NSA affair by Chancellor Merkel and her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). A German chancellor, he said in the interview, cannot just take a wait-and-see approach when data has allegedly been abused in millions of instances. He said much surrounding the scandal "remained an open question and had not yet been resolved."
'Knee-Jerk, Anti-American Responses'
Speaking for the government, however, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned against "knee-jerk, anti-American responses," on Monday. He said the United States remains Germany's most important strategic partner outside of Europe. He also said the global standards could be established during the trade negotiations and that Europe should move to create such standards before other economic powers take the initiative.
The political wrangling followed revelations released in advance of publication by SPIEGEL over the weekend about new details on the NSA's vast spying programs. SPIEGEL reported on documents indicating the NSA eavesdropped on the United Nations headquarters in New York as well as on the EU mission there. Documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden further suggest that more than 80 US embassies and consulates around the world were inappropriately used as eavesdropping posts, including the US consulate in Frankfurt.
The operations, which are concealed, are referred to as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS), and they are jointly operated with the CIA. The aim of the operations is to intercept communications in their host countries, and the required antennas and satellite dishes are usually disguised. The electronic eavesdropping is believed to violate not only diplomatic code, but also international agreements. An NSA document seen by SPIEGEL also warns that the existence of bugging units in embassies and consulates is to be kept secret under all circumstances. If it were leaked, this would "cause serious harm to relations between the US and a foreign government," the document states.
Frankfurt is located in the state of Hesse, where state Justice Minister Jörg-Uwe Hahn of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) tweeted on Sunday that he had called on the US consul general in a letter to quickly provide a response to the allegations. A state election is to be held in Hesse concurrently with the Sept. 22 general election.
'Brazen or Cluelessly Naïve'
The new revelations have generated widespread outrage among German politicians. The interior affairs spokesperson for the Green Party in parliament, Konstantin von Notz, said, "If the latest disclosures are confirmed, then the NSA scandal, which the federal government has so far stubbornly denied, will achieve a new dimension." The politician said the NSA issue was far from resolved and described such claims made by Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, as "either brazen or cluelessly naïve." Notz said Merkel's government must promptly clarify what is happening at the US consulate in Frankfurt and that "law enforcement agencies may also be needed here."
In its Monday edition, SPIEGEL is also reporting that the NSA spied not only on EU institutions and offices, but also on the United Nations headquarters in New York. According to documents seen by SPIEGEL, the NSA succeeded during the summer of 2012 in infiltrating and decrypting the UN's internal video teleconferencing system. Under rules still in place today, the US and UN signed an agreement in 1947 that forbids all undercover operations.
Internal NSA documents seen by SPIEGEL also indicate that the NSA continued to spy on the EU even after its move to new offices in September 2012. Among the documents that Snowden copied from the NSA's computers is one showing the floor plan of the offices of the EU Delegation to the UN on New York's Third Avenue. It indicates the location of individual offices and also where servers and IT infrastructure are located.
In Berlin, the Foreign Ministry has denied having any information about possible spying on the UN and embassies by the NSA. "We have no knowledge of our own," a ministry spokesperson said on Sunday.