Anyone searching for a good summer farce to keep themselves entertained during these hot, meandering summer months should take a trip to Berlin, where an elegant little comedy is currently playing out inside Germany’s Bundestag. On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, who oversees the country’s intelligence agencies, was dragged before a parliamentary committee to answer for his government’s involvement in NSA spying activities. But a hearing that was supposed to provide some clarity on the agency’s activities in Germany instead turned into a sorry reflection of the political ineptitude of Merkel’s opponents.
"Mr. PRISM is an important witness," Hans-Christian Ströbele, the senior Green Party member on the parliamentary panel tasked with overseeing Germany’s intelligence agencies, intoned at the hearing. Ströbele concluded that he would appreciate the opportunity to ask Mr. PRISM a few questions.
Informed of his error — he of course intended to refer to Edward Snowden — Ströbele "grabbed his head," in the words of Der Spiegel.
With general elections approaching in September, German politicians are attempting to make political hay out of revelations of spying activity in Germany and alleged cooperation between the NSA and German intelligence agencies. "The scale of this scandal is so large that nobody other than the chancellor personally needs to ensure that basic rights are protected in Germany," Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, said earlier this month.
The full scope of the NSA’s abilities carries particularly troubling overtones in Germany, where the memory of the iron-fisted Stasi, the East German intelligence agency, is still fresh in the minds of large portions of the population. That’s a comparison that Merkel, who is from the former GDR, is aggressively confronting. "For me, there is absolutely no comparison between the [Stasi] and the work of intelligence agencies in democratic states," Merkel said in an interview with Die Zeit. "They are two completely different things and such comparisons only lead to a trivialization of what the Stasi did to people."
So far, Merkel looks to be winning that argument. Despite widely unpopular European bailout packages that have been largely underwritten by Germany and now allegations that Germany’s intelligence agencies worked hand in glove with their American counterparts, Germany’s opposition is showing no movement in the polls. According to the latest poll, Merkel’s Christian Democrats are holding steady at 41 percent, while the two main opposition parties saw their level of support decline.
So hand it to the German political opposition for finding itself completely unable to exploit a perfectly ripe opportunity to rake the country’s leader over the tools.