BERLIN — German federal prosecutors say they are looking into whether reported U.S. electronic surveillance programs broke laws, as across the European Union shocked and outraged officials demanded an explanation on a magazine’s report of Washington’s eavesdropping.
The Federal Prosecutors' Office in Berlin said in a statement Sunday that it was probing the claims made in German news weekly Der Spiegel that, apart from U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program used to eavesdrop on Internet traffic, the agency also spied on European Union offices on both sides of the Atlantic. The magazine's reporting was based on documents shared with them by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The prosecutor’s office said its probe was aimed to "achieve a reliable factual basis" before considering whether a formal investigation was warranted. It also said private citizens were likely to file criminal complaints on the matter.
France too asked Washington to explain the report, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.
"These acts, if confirmed, would be completely unacceptable," Fabius said. "We expect the American authorities to answer the legitimate concerns raised by these press revelations as quickly as possible."
Meanwhile, European Union officials also demanded the U.S. answer to the Der Spiegel report, using unusually strong language to confront its closest trading partner over its alleged surveillance activities.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission said on Sunday the EU contacted U.S. authorities in Washington and Brussels about the report, which claimed the U.S. secret service had tapped EU offices in Washington and Brussels and at the United Nations.
"We have immediately been in contact with the U.S. authorities in Washington D.C. and in Brussels and have confronted them with the press reports," the spokeswoman said.
"They have told us they are checking on the accuracy of the information released yesterday and will come back to us," she added in a statement.
Der Spiegel reported on its website on Saturday that the National Security Agency had bugged EU offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks in the latest revelation of alleged U.S. spying that has prompted outrage from EU politicians.
The magazine followed up on Sunday with a report that the U.S. Secret Service taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month and has classed its biggest European ally as a target similar to China.
Der Spiegel cited a September 2010 "top secret" document from the NSA which it said Snowden had taken with him and which the weekly's journalists had seen in part.
The document outlines how the NSA bugged offices and spied on EU internal computer networks in Washington and at the United Nations, not only listening to conversations and phone calls but also gaining access to documents and emails. The document explicitly called the EU a "target."
Without citing sources, the magazine reported that more than five years ago security officers at the EU had noticed and traced several missed calls to NSA offices within the NATO compound in Brussels. Each EU member state has rooms in Justus Lipsius with phone and Internet connections, which ministers can use.
Revelations about the alleged U.S. spying program, which became public through documents taken by Snowden have raised a furore in the United States and abroad over the balance between privacy rights and national security.
The extent to which Washington's EU allies are being monitored has emerged as an issue of particular concern.
"If the media reports are correct, this brings to memory actions among enemies during the Cold War. It goes beyond any imagination that our friends in the United States view the Europeans as enemies," said German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.
"If it is true that EU representations in Brussels and Washington were indeed tapped by the American secret service, it can hardly be explained with the argument of fighting terrorism," she said in a statement.
Germans are particularly sensitive about government monitoring, having lived through the Stasi secret police in the former communist East Germany and with lingering memories of the Gestapo of Hitler's Nazi regime.
On Saturday, Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament and also a German, said that if the report was correct, it would have a "severe impact" on relations between the EU and the United States.
"On behalf of the European Parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the U.S. authorities with regard to these allegations," he said in an emailed statement.
Some policymakers said talks for a free trade agreement between Washington and the EU should be put on ice until further clarification from the United States.
"Partners do not spy on each other," the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, said at a public event in Luxembourg on Sunday.
"We cannot negotiate over a big transatlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators," Reding said in comments passed on to reporters by her spokeswoman.
The European Parliament's foreign affairs committee head Elmar Brok, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. echoed those views.
"The spying has taken on dimensions that I would never have thought possible from a democratic state," he told Der Spiegel.
"How should we still negotiate if we must fear that our negotiating position is being listened to beforehand?"
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