Monday, November 16, 2015

BERLIN — She was the dominant political, economic and moral voice on the Continent just a short time ago, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s image and power base have taken hits in recent days.

Revelations that Germany’s intelligence services spied on the FBI, American defense contractors, European allies and even respected international organizations such as the Red Cross have further dented Mrs. Merkel’s authority at a time when she is politically weaker than ever.

The terrorist attacks in Paris are only fueling doubts in Germany about the chancellor’s forthright policy of welcoming Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees — a huge percentage of whom say Germany is their preferred new home. Like President Obama, Mrs. Merkel stood strong Monday for a welcoming policy for fleeing migrants, despite fears that Islamic State operatives could be included among the masses.

“We owe that not only to the victims but also to security in our countries and to the refugees, a large number of whom are fleeing terrorism,” Mrs. Merkel said, even as many of Berlin’s partners in the European Union are tightening controls and building border walls to hold back the growing crowds of refugees.

But PEGIDA, the anti-Islam movement that has staged a string of rallies around the country in recent months, accused Mrs. Merkel at a Dresden demonstration Monday of being at least partly responsible for the carnage in Paris.

Thousands joined the far-right movement in cheering a speaker who blamed the jihadi attacks on what he labeled Europe’s failed immigration policy.

“The attacks didn’t come out of nowhere,” Siegfried Daebritz, a PEGIDA spokesman, told the Dresden gathering, where protesters chanted, “Merkel must go!”

“They are the result of an immigration policy that invites people from completely foreign cultures with completely different values into countries and regions whose culture many of these immigrants despise,” Mr. Daebritz said, according to a report from the Agence France-Presse news service.

The spy scandal that broke last week has hit hard in a country where privacy and resistance to government snooping are highly valued.

Mrs. Merkel, who had dominated the German political scene since her election as chancellor a decade ago, seized the moral high ground in a series of recent exposures of American surveillance of German and other European leaders. Last year, for instance, when accusations surfaced that the National Security Agency had tapped her mobile phone for more than a decade, Mrs. Merkel expressed disappointment, saying friends don’t spy on friends.

Now, at the same time her open-door policy for Syrian refugees is causing rifts in her 10-year governing coalition, the chancellor is on the defensive on intelligence, too.

“Merkel’s dictum — spying among friends is a no-go — is not credible anymore,” said Stefan Heumann, an analyst at the New Responsibility Foundation, a Berlin-based think tank.

American officials had always been rightly skeptical of Mrs. Merkel’s surprised and angry public reaction to suspected phone tapping, he said.

“They said right from the beginning that other countries would be spying and always felt the German criticism was hypocritical,” Mr. Heumann said. “They feel vindicated by the recent disclosures.”

Last week, two separate news reports revealed that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German spy agency, had been snooping on a host of ostensible allies.

The German public radio station rbb-Inforadio reported that the BND eavesdropped on the FBI, U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, European Union diplomat Hansjoerg Haber — a German citizen — the International Criminal Court and the World Health Organization.

A few days earlier, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the BND had penetrated the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of the Interior and its equivalent domestic agencies in Austria, Croatia, Denmark and Poland. The magazine also reported that the BND had spied on American, British, French and a handful of other diplomats working in Germany.

Additionally, the BND monitored charities such as Care International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Oxfam, Der Spiegel claimed.

Migrants and terrorism

The terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing European refugee crisis have only added to the political headwinds Mrs. Merkel is facing, putting intense pressure on the chancellor on another front as Germany deals with a rising nativist anti-Muslim movement.

Mrs. Merkel’s government coalition partners in the Christian Social Union have criticized the chancellor for accepting refugees and called for stricter border controls to prevent Islamic radicals from entering the country.

Polls have found that more than half of German citizens disapprove of Mrs. Merkel’s policy of welcoming of refugees into the country.

The surveillance scandal, meanwhile, is unlikely to fade away.

German lawmakers are conducting a probe into claims that surfaced in May that the German intelligence service knew and assisted in spying by the U.S. National Security Agency, including helping to track French and EU officials. The BND also mistakenly picked up calls by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to reports.

Parliamentarians overseeing the probe said they would expand their inquiry to look into the most recent revelations into the BND’s espionage.

“We have obviously only discovered the tip of the iceberg of sloppiness, incompetence and organizational failure,” Christian Flisek, a lawmaker with the Social Democrats, part of the governing coalition, said in an interview with the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper. “BND witnesses have fooled us on the committee for years, saying that the BND works properly and spies neither on friends nor Germans.”

Christiane Wirtz, a spokesman for the German government, promised that officials would launch a full investigation into the media accusations.

“The duties of the BND do not include political reconnaissance work against partner countries,” Ms. Wirtz said.

It’s not clear whether Germans will trust the government looking into its own potential misdoings, however.

Late last year, a top prosecutor stirred controversy when he scrapped a high-profile investigation into the charges that the U.S. had tapped Mrs. Merkel’s phone for more than a decade.

The prosecutor said he lacked the evidence to take the matter to court, where Germany’s privacy laws are among the strictest in the world, reflecting the country’s tragic experience with bugs during the Nazi and communist eras.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the phone tapping as part of his 2013 leaks that exposed the NSA’s dragnet of digital communications around the globe. Mrs. Merkel expelled a top CIA agent in Berlin last year over the scandal.

The accusations of NSA spying and the BND’s suspected role in the American agency’s snooping enraged the German public, however.

In June, WikiLeaks dumped documents that suggested the NSA spied on French Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande from 2006 to 2012.

According to the German investigative media reports, it now appears that Germany was also keeping close tabs on French leaders for its own purposes, separate from those of the NSA.

Anette Stapper, 52, a lawyer from Leipzig, said the reports fed her and other Germans’ cynicism about Mrs. Merkel and politicians in general when it came to government surveillance.

“I am shocked,” said Ms. Stapper. “But in the end, I believe that they are all pretty much the same. They all have skeletons in their closets.”

Carolin Wilms contributed to this report.

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