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Kerry faces US-Europe gulf on surveillance in Germany

US Secretary of State Kerry meets German Chancellor Merkel today. Merkel spoke out about privacy again this week, as two Norwegians nominated Edward Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Markus Schreiber/Reuters
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry for a meeting at Tegel airport in Berlin.

The actions of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden continue to divide Europe and the United States in the ongoing debate over whether security trumps privacy when it comes to government surveillance.

These differences were underscored once again this week after two Norwegian lawmakers nominated Mr. Snowden for a Nobel Peace Prize, drawing strong rebuke from the US, where Snowden faces espionage and theft of government property charges. And spying will likely be a central topic of conversation as German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets today with US Secretary of State John Kerry, ahead of the Munich Security Conference.

The two lawmakers, Bard Vegar Solhjell and Snorre Valen, both of Norway's Socialist Left Party, wrote in their nomination letter that: "There is no doubt that the actions of Edward Snowden may have damaged the security interests of several nations in the short term. We do not necessarily condone or support all of his disclosures."

"We are, however, convinced that the public debate and changes in policy that have followed in the wake of Snowden's whistleblowing [have] contributed to a more stable and peaceful world order.… His actions have in effect led to the reintroduction of trust and transparency as a leading principle in global security policies. Its value can't be overestimated."

Snowden's revelations about the extent of US spying around the world have prompted President Obama, a Nobel recipient himself, to impose measures to limit collection of domestic phone records, as well as to stop listening in on the leaders of countries that are friends and allies. He also called for broader changes in the US surveillance program.

But questions about far-reaching surveillance continue to feature prominently in European statements. This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an impassioned speech to the German parliament, said essentially that freedom is more important than security.

"Actions in which the ends justify the means, in which everything that is technically possible is done, violate trust, they sow distrust," she said. "The end result is not more security but less."

She continued:

"Is it right that our closest partners such as the United States and Britain gain access to all imaginable data, saying this is for their own security and the security of their partners? Is it right to act this way because others in the world do the same? … Is it right if in the end this is not about averting terrorist threats but, for example, gaining an advantage over allies in negotiations, at G20 summits or UN sessions? Our answer can only be: No, this can't be right. Because it touches the very core of what co-operation between friendly and allied countries is about: trust." 

Tensions have risen between Germany and the US since allegations that Ms. Merkel's cellphone was monitored by the NSA. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, where citizens were broadly and routinely spied on, is an intensely private individual, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in an in-depth profile. She is pushing for a European no-spying agreement.

In addition to meeting Secretary of State Kerry today, Merkel is also meeting with Obama in coming months in scheduled trips to Washington, though she downplayed expectations that a specific agreement on spying and data privacy, like agreements Europe is attempting to cobble together, would be on the table.

"Many say the attempts for such an agreement are doomed to failure from the outset, an unrealistic endeavor. That may be," Merkel said. "Certainly the problem won't be solved by just one visit."

Germany's Deutsche Welle newspaper echoes that point, noting the futility thus far on talks about a "no-spying" pact. But it cites a degree of optimism by a US diplomat:

Despite that, a US State Department official said "an enormous amount of progress" had been made on repairing ties: "Those discussions obviously will continue and I expect that the path forward will be one of the subjects that the secretary speaks to both Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel about," the official said.

While Snowden's revelations have driven a wedge between the US and Germany and many other European nations, his Nobel nomination is not expected to create problems for US-Norwegian relations. Mr. Valen wrote Bloomberg to explain his views that diplomatic relations aren't likely to be at stake: “The US is one of the world’s most democratic and free societies,” Valen said in an email that “I feel confident that a peace prize to Snowden will not affect US-Norwegian relations. I have more trust in Barack Obama’s democratic thinking than that of China's.”

And the Snowden nomination in itself, the Daily Beast points out, doesn't mean much.

"But what, dear reader, does it actually mean to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize? The short answer: not much," writes Michael Moynihan, reminding readers that other nominees include Russian President Vladimir Putin this year, Bradley Manning (also nominated by Valen), and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, also living in asylum.

The person who nominates a Nobel prizewinner is officially kept secret for 50 years, but nominees themselves are free to make public their actions. The process for nominating Nobel Peace Prize candidates ends Saturday, and the winner is announced in October.

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