The goal, he said at a press conference, is to bring to justice specific individual U.S. government agents who were allegedly involved in the unlawful snooping operations against German officials. Prosecutions for spying on everyday citizens, while a violation of German law, will not be forthcoming — at least not yet.
Federal officials in Berlin had been investigating the alleged NSA crimes since last year following the explosive revelations of the U.S. government’s spying leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden a year ago. Some analysts called him a whistleblower hero; others refer to him as a traitor. Nonetheless, the leaks caused a global uproar that included mass outrage in the United States, where hundreds of millions of Americans had their constitutionally protected rights violated by the agency.
In Germany, though, where citizens have endured multiple vicious tyrannies over the last century, the fury was especially intense. More than a few critics of the snooping programs have even invoked memories of National Socialist (Nazi) or Communist regimes. Countless references to the Soviet-backed East German Stasi secret police, which became infamous for its extreme spying on citizens, have also been made. Even Merkel compared the NSA spying to the operations of the Stasi.
Snowden’s revelations and German media reports suggest that the NSA’s operations in Germany gobbled up gargantuan amounts of private information on German citizens and officials. Efforts to have the ex-NSA contractor testify in Parliament about the schemes, however, were blocked by German political leaders citing bilateral relations with the United States. Snowden currently has asylum in Russia.
Since last year, though, German authorities have reportedly been looking into both the mass espionage targeting everyday citizens as well as the targeting of Merkel more specifically. This month, authorities in Berlin said there was enough evidence to proceed with the criminal investigation — at least on the agents who allegedly targeted Merkel. The spying on citizens’ communications, while troubling to Germans and unlawful, will not be prosecuted at this point. Officials reserved the right to return to that component later as well.
Specific NSA operatives are being targeted for prosecution as opposed to the broader bureaucracy. The German Parliament’s judicial committee was informed of the decisions during a closed session before the potential prosecutions were announced to the world at a press conference.
“Let me be clear: Espionage is a criminal offense in Germany regardless of whether those spying are friends or enemies,” German Federal Public Prosecutor Harald Range told journalists in publicly announcing the investigation, citing findings that specific individuals were perpetrating the crimes. “We’re finding ourselves in a new reality here. James Bond 007 is yesterday. James Bond 2.0 is today.”
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Photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel: AP Images