BERLIN — In Germany, debate continues over allegations of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff testified before a parliamentary committee on Thursday, and the chancellor herself continues to come under fire by some who say she has not told the public enough about Germany's cooperation with U.S. intelligence services. Hearings on the issue seem to have become a platform for the opposition to weaken Merkel before the fall elections.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, quickly addressed the media before meeting with the intelligence oversight board.
Pofalla said he hoped to address criticism levied against Germany's intelligence agency.
Pofalla spoke privately to the 10-member body. Sebastian Feyock of the German Council on Foreign Relations said the committee will likely keep its findings secret in the near term.
"The government is supposed to report to the parliament on actual missions and the tasks that the secret services are engaged in. This is of course the reason why it's held in secret," Feyock said. "I don't think that the control committee will submit a report in the end of something like that."
Chancellor Merkel's government denies that German citizens' data was transferred en masse to the United States or to the NSA. Members of the committee told reporters that they still are not comfortable with the information they have received from her government.
Germany appears to be the only country in Europe investigating the NSA spying allegations with such zeal. And Veit Medick, who is covering the hearings for the magazine Der Spiegel, said he thinks the reason is simple. "It's mainly because of the elections that we have in September," he stated.
Long history of cooperation with US
Medick said the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is trying to chip away at Merkel's nearly 20-point lead in the polls. But Medick said the investigations could backfire because the last government, composed of the very opposition now challenging Merkel, also cooperated closely with the U.S.
"They have a problem themselves, of course. The SPD and Greens were in government from 1998 up to 2005. After 9-11, they intensified and enhanced cooperation with U.S. intelligence, and their credibility is in question too," said Medick.
But Medick said Merkel's standing going into the election is so strong that the parties seem willing to pursue an investigation. "It's kind of their last chance to bring some heat into the campaign, which has not been there in the last months, or even years. Merkel is way up in the polls and so this might be an instrument to get to Merkel. This is what they are trying to do, at least," he noted.
Medick said polls have revealed that the German public is not too interested in the spying affair. "If you look at the reaction of German society - there is no reaction. It's a media debate, I would say," stated Medick.
Medick and other observers said they think Chancellor Merkel's government will try to remain quiet on the NSA affair going into the elections and only respond when directly confronted with leaks.
"They only give information about what they do when they really have to. And I don't think that this strategy will change," said Medick. "Especially not when you look at the polls, saying no one really seems to care [in Germany]. The strategy might prove successful."
Two more hearings on the surveillance issue in Germany are planned between now and August, bringing the number to six. Whether they or additional leaks will affect the reelection campaign remains to be seen.