BERLIN — A German politician who’s been pushing his government for months to offer asylum or even witness protection to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden said Friday that Snowden was willing “in principle” to assist any German investigation into NSA spying practices.
That offer would be accepted, the country’s interior minister later said, in another sign of the deep damage done to German-U.S. relations by news that the NSA had eavesdropped on a cellphone belonging to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“If the message is that Snowden wants to give us information, then we would gladly accept,” Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said.
The offer from Snowden came through Hans-Christian Stroebele, a member of the opposition Green party who’s the longest-serving member of the Bundestag’s intelligence committee. Stroebele met with Snowden for almost three hours in Moscow on Thursday.
Stroebele, who said his trip to Moscow was specifically to ask Snowden whether he’d testify before the Bundestag about NSA activities in Germany, returned with a letter from Snowden in which the 30-year-old computer specialist defends his leaking of secret NSA documents.
“I am heartened by the response to my act of political expression, in both the United States and beyond,” Snowden wrote in the letter, which Stroebele read aloud at a news conference Friday. “Citizens around the world as well as high officials – including in the United States – have judged the revelation of an unaccountable system of pervasive surveillance to be a public service.”
The letter, which was intended for the German government, didn’t mention whether Snowden would be willing to testify before the German legislature, but Stroebele said Snowden had told him that he “could imagine coming to Germany, as long it was guaranteed that he could stay in Germany or a comparable country thereafter and stay safe there. . . . He is prepared in principle to assist a parliamentary inquiry.”
The lengths to which Stroebele and Snowden went to make what amounted to a very simple and not particularly surprising announcement speaks to the layers of irony surrounding the Snowden affair. Snowden, once a technical expert for the NSA and today famous worldwide and synonymous with privacy rights and the highest levels of computer encryption, is living a quiet life in Russia, a nation long considered to be an enemy of privacy.
Snowden’s meeting with Stroebele was described as a secretive affair, and Snowden hand-delivered a typed message to Stroebele, who then hand-delivered the letter to his government.
The letter itself reads in the manner of a mass Christmas greeting from Snowden. There’s nothing addressed specifically to the concerns of the German government. The letter doesn’t shed additional light on the tapping of Merkel’s phone, for instance. And while he begins by saying the letter is “regarding your investigation of mass surveillance” he offers no hints of what he might still have to add to the discussion.
In fact, it doesn’t mention Germany at all, instead saying, “I look forward to speaking with you in your country when the situation is resolved.”
But it does offer some general insight into his thoughts these days.
“Though the outcome of my efforts has been demonstrably positive, my government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defense,” he wrote. “However, speaking the truth is not a crime. I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United States will abandon this harmful behavior.”
Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman, noted that Snowden already has been turned down when seeking asylum in Germany, because German law requires asylum seekers to be in the country when they apply.
Stroebele began voicing his support for Snowden’s efforts to win asylum in Germany in late June, just weeks after the first reports on the documents he was leaking began appearing in newspapers around the world. Earlier this week, speaking to McClatchy, Stroebele repeated that he thinks it’s important for Germans to hear what Snowden has to say.
“I think Germany should grant Snowden asylum or at least grant him witness protection status,” he said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he was unaware of any conversations with the Germans about their contacts with Snowden. He acknowledged that the revelations that the NSA had monitored Merkel’s phone had damaged German-U.S. relations. Merkel personally telephoned President Barack Obama to complain about the monitoring of her phone, and her Foreign Ministry later summoned the U.S. ambassador for a dressing-down.
Merkel has since said the monitoring was unacceptable among friends.
“When it comes to the tensions caused by the disclosures that have appeared because of those unauthorized leaks, we’re handling those issues in our direct diplomatic communications with Germany and other nations and allies,” Carney said. “These are issues that we are addressing, and they go to the heart of the overall review of our intelligence-collection activities that the president has ordered up, and it’s underway now.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report from Washington.
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