Germany's federal prosecutor has enough evidence to launch a criminal investigation into allegations the U.S. National Security Agency tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone, but not enough to probe the alleged mass surveillance of German citizens.
There are "tangible facts" to suspect that unidentified employees of U.S. intelligence services monitored Merkel's cell phone, Germany's federal prosecutor Harald Range said Wednesday in a news release, announcing he launched a criminal investigation into the matter. As a first step, his office will start gathering testimonies and request information from government agencies.
However, a preliminary investigation into the alleged mass surveillance of German citizens has so far provided no evidence on whether and how British and U.S. intelligence services spied on German citizens' Internet use and telecommunications, the Office of the Federal Prosecutor said.
Nonetheless, the Office of the Federal Prosecutor will keep the matter under observation and hopes to gather new evidence of mass surveillance while probing the alleged snooping on Merkel's phone.
The preliminary investigation into the widely reported mass surveillance of German citizens started in June last year. So far, the office has analyzed generally accessible sources including media reports, public statements of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as well as public statements from several German politicians and U.S. government officials, it said.
Furthermore, several German ministries and the federal intelligence services were questioned. The prosecution also tried to contact Snowden through his German lawyer in order to give him the chance to share any of his knowledge of the NSA's German activities, but Snowden hasn't responded, the office said.
The decision to at least start a partial criminal investigation into the NSA affair follows German media reports last week based on sources within the prosecutor's office that there would be no investigation into the alleged mass surveillance and spying on Merkel's phone at all.
It was impossible for the Office of the Federal Prosecutor to gather evidence about the German activities of the NSA due to a lack of witnesses and documents, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Attempts to get information from the German government and intelligence services were denied, and requests filed with U.S. authorities probably went unanswered, the reports said, adding that the authorities invariably told the investigators that they only had information based on media reports.
German data protection officials reacted with bewilderment to the reports last week that the Office of the Federal Prosecutor wouldn't investigate the mass surveillance. Thilo Weichert, Data Protection Commissioner for the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, said last week that the work of data protection authorities "will be reduced to absurdity" if they are expected to function when the top German investigatory authority stops a preliminary investigation while the privacy of millions of German citizens is obviously violated.
Federal prosecutor Range is scheduled to explain his decisions in further detail later Wednesday.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org