US and Germany to hold talks over European NSA surveillance concerns

Germany and the US will begin
talks as soon as Monday, to address
mounting European concerns over
internet surveillance that are
threatening to overshadow trade
negotiations and damage Silicon
Valley exports.
A German government spokesman,
Steffen Seibert, said a working
group of high-level US and German
intelligence experts will begin "an
immediate and intense discussion"
over the issues of data protection
and intelligence collection revealed
by the National Security Agency
whistleblower Edward Snowden .
This follows the clearest
acknowledgement yet by the White
House of how the affair is
damaging transatlantic relations.
In a phone call on Wednesday,
President Barack Obama assured
Angela Merkel , the German
chancellor, "that the United States
takes seriously the concerns" -
despite his having previously
dismissed the spying allegations as
no different from activities
undertaken by many other
countries.
The European Commission also
underlined the commercial threat
to the US on Thursday by warning
that European businesses are likely
to abandon the services of
American internet providers
because of the NSA surveillance
scandal. Neelie Kroes, the EC vice-
president who speaks on digital
affairs, predicted that providers of
cloud services, which allow users to
store and access data on remote
servers, could suffer significant
loss of business if clients fear the
security of their material is under
threat.
The French government called for
a suspension of long-awaited talks
on a new transatlantic free-trade
pact, due to start on Monday, while
the US explains its surveillance
practices. European ambassadors
eventually agreed to go ahead with
negotiations in parallel.
France's top security official
publicly admonished the United
States at the American
ambassador's 4 July garden party,
denouncing alleged US "espionage"
of France and other countries.
Interior minister Manuel Valls was
guest of honor at the fête, which
was hosted by ambassador Charles
Rivkin on Thursday. In a speech
before hundreds of guests, he said
that "in the name of our friendship,
we owe each other honesty. We
must say things clearly, directly,
frankly".
Valls said that President François
Hollande's demand for clear and
precise explanations about reports
of spying are justified because
"such practices, if proven, do not
have their place between allies and
partners".
In the US, initial anger over
domestic surveillance has been
distracted in recent days by
attempts to capture Snowden , but
the forthcoming talks are likely to
refocus attention on the White
House.
James Clapper, the director of
national intelligence, also faces the
prospect of new congressional
hearings to explain why he
previously misled the Senate
intelligence committee over the
extent of data gathered on US
citizens .
Obama has agreed to begin wide-
ranging dialogue between the US
and EU member states, involving
the attorney general Eric Holder, to
discuss "the collection and
oversight of intelligence and
questions of privacy and data
protection". During Wednesday's
telephone discussion with Merkel,
Obama sought to reassure her that
US surveillance services would
provide the Europeans with details
of the activities they had carried
out. According to a German
government spokesman, Merkel
welcomed Washington's willingness
to discuss details of the surveillance
operations.
A White House spokesman said:
"The two leaders reaffirmed the
importance of continued close
cooperation between our respective
intelligence services in the fight
against terrorism and other threats
to the security of the United States,
Germany, and our allies."
Merkel's management of the crisis
has been widely criticised by both
her coalition partners, the FDP and
the Social Democrats. Both have
accused the German chancellor of
being too lenient towards the US
authorities. The government has
been forced on to the defensive,
with interior minister Hans-Peter
Friedrich insisting that contrary to
opposition accusations, it knew
nothing of the operations, and that
it has so far found no concrete
evidence that US agents operated on
German soil.
The head of the Social Democrats,
Sigmar Gabriel, called on
Germany's justice system to
intervene in the case of Snowden,
suggesting German lawyers should
travel to Moscow to interview him
and if they found him credible,
pave the way for Germany to give
him shelter under a witness
protection scheme. Snowden has
applied for asylum in Germany,
but his application has been
rejected.
Gabriel joined the growing
criticism of Merkel's government,
and urged state prosecutors to
launch a criminal investigation
into the activities of the NSA. "I
would consider it appropriate if the
state prosecution were to pursue a
case against those in a position of
responsibility, against the
American and British secret
services," he said. The party's
parliamentary head, Frank Walter
Steinmeier, called on the US to halt
its surveillance operations, saying
they had "burst at the seams".
The spying scandal has provoked
particular outrage in Germany,
which is still haunted by memories
of its years under Nazi and then
Communist rule, when the
population lived under the
widespread espionage techniques of
the Gestapo and Stasi. While many
have pointed out the comparisons
between those years and the NSA
scandal are exaggerated, it has not
stopped many commentators
frequently drawing on the
similarities between them.