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German parliamentary inquiry into surveillance begins

Germany’s committee of inquiry into surveillance of German citizens by the NSA and its partners has held its first hearing today in Berlin. Proceedings are being broadcast live on the internet, with a time-lag.

Following months of negotiations, Germany’s four major parties unanimously approved a parliamentary inquiry into surveillance in March. The Snowden revelations have proven particularly resonant in Germany, where there have been repeated demands for the public prosecutor’s office to look into allegations of surveillance on German citizens, including the Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the possible complicity of the German intelligence service, the BND.

All four parties are represented on the 8 member committee, which includes four members of the governing CDU, two members of the SPD and one from each of the Green and Left (Die Linke) groups. Earlier this year Die Linke nominated Edward Snowden for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Chair of the committee is CDU deputy Clemens Binninger, who also chairs the Parliamentary Control Commission responsible for overseeing the German intelligence services. Binninger has played down expectations for the inquiry, expressing scepticism that officials in the UK and US will be willing to cooperate. “The evidence will be difficult”, he has said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine. “We will not get a lot of the information.” He estimated the duration of the enquiry two be a couple of years – significantly longer than comparable investigations carried out by the Brazilian Senate and the European Parliament.

One of the first questions the committee will have to consider is whether to invite Edward Snowden to testify and, if so how. The committee is expected to start hearing from witnesses in June. For his part, Snowden indicated his willingness to aid the German government last year, when he met Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow. The issue is controversial within the committee – as it has proven in inquiries carried out by the European Parliament and the Australian Senate. The Greens and Left representatives have already expressed their desire to call Snowden as a witness and are not obliged to seek the agreement of the rest of the committee to do this, but it seems that a more concilliatory approach will be adopted.

What kind of information would Edward Snowden present? Up until now, Snowden has been careful not to comment on matters that have not already been reported by journalists and the “general” nature of Snowden’s comments has been cited by Clemens Binninger as a reason against seeking his testimony. In practice, however, statements like Snowden’s written answer to the European Parliament on NSA and GCHQ  attempts to weaken legal protections overseas do expand substantially on information that, while in the public domain, had not been reported as widely as some of the other revelations.

On Wednesday 9 April, Clemens Binniger resigned from the committee over his opposition to calling Edward Snowden as a witness.