World and Nation

Germany begins inquiry in US surveillance case

BERLIN — Germany’s federal prosecutor announced Wednesday that he had begun a formal investigation of what he called “unknown” members of U.S. intelligence agencies on suspicion that they had eavesdropped on one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphones.

Anger at the National Security Agency and the British intelligence services has simmered and occasionally erupted full force since the magazine Der Spiegel and other Western news media outlets published material last June from Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, suggesting that millions of Germans’ data and phone calls had been monitored.

By October, Der Spiegel uncovered evidence that Merkel’s cellphone was among those tapped. The German government, stung by the behavior of its most powerful ally, angrily demanded an explanation. The White House swiftly assured the chancellor that she is not and will not be under that kind of surveillance, but omitted saying anything about the past.

Public anger and political pressure have only increased since. U.S. and German officials have failed to find a way to reconcile their need to combat terrorism with the Berlin government’s demand that secret services observe German law — which is strict on privacy matters — when operating in Germany.

The federal prosecutor, Harald Range, had been investigating the issue for months and came under strong pressure from members of Parliament and news media commentators in recent days after Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a respected newspaper, and one of Germany’s state broadcasters reported that he would not formally investigate the eavesdropping on Merkel’s phone.

Asked about this at a news conference at his Rarlsruhe headquarters, Range said, “I don’t know who made these predictions,” emphasizing that he took the official inquiry seriously but not commenting further.

In announcing his formal inquiry into the matter, Range’s office stated that “extensive preliminary investigations have established sufficient factual evidence of possible surveillance of a mobile telephone of Chancellor Angela Merkel by unknown members of the U.S. secret services.” The next step will be to question witnesses and examine documents, the statement said.

There was no immediate comment on the new inquiry from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, which is said to have been the base for listening to Merkel’s phone.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama in Europe that “the best way to address the concerns that Germany has had about NSA’s activities is through a direct dialogue with us.”