BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected any comparison between U.S. surveillance activities and pervasive snooping by communist East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, insisting in an interview published Wednesday that intelligence work is essential to security in democratic countries.
Merkel grew up in East Germany, where the Stasi had a network of tens of thousands of full-time spies and many more informers, directed primarily at curbing internal dissent. Asked in an interview with the weekly Die Zeit whether alleged bugging by the National Security Agency was reminiscent of the Stasi, the chancellor bluntly rejected the parallel.
"For me, there is absolutely no comparison between the (Stasi) and the work of intelligence agencies in democratic states," she was quoted as saying. "They are two completely different things and such comparisons only lead to a trivialization of what the Stasi did to people" in East Germany.
Merkel argued that democratic countries' intelligence work "has always been and will in future be essential for the security of citizens." She added that "a country without intelligence work would be too vulnerable."
Germans are sensitive to data protection concerns, not least because of memories of repression by the Stasi and the Nazis' Gestapo.
Merkel has called for the U.S. to clear up the recent allegations, saying it would be unacceptable if bugs were planted in allies' embassies or in European Union facilities and noting that "the Cold War is over." She also has emphasized the importance of a balance between security and data protection.
Germany's center-left opposition has sought to attack her on the issue ahead of September elections, arguing that she should do more and questioning officials' assertions that they didn't know about NSA surveillance programs.
Still, surveys so far show no sign of any dent in Merkel's popularity due to the issue.
The government's top security official, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, plans to meet U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco in Washington Friday for talks on the issue.
The talks will be part of an ongoing dialogue with EU allies about intelligence, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman said.
Merkel's government appears keen to keep down the heat on the issue.
"I would like us to conduct the necessary discussion with the U.S. in a spirit that, for all the more-than-justified questions, never forgets that America has been, and is, our most loyal ally over all the decades," Merkel was quoted as telling Die Zeit.