For lawmakers from Germany and other European nations, a three-day stop in Washington was one step in getting to the bottom of U.S. National Security Agency surveillance of U.S. allies, revealed last year by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
A man adjusts flags of European countries during a wind gust before a meeting of the German Foreign Minister with European counterparts at the Villa Borsig in Berlin August 28, 2014. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the 'West Balkan Conference' aimed at supporting the economic and political situation in the South-East European region. AFP PHOTO / TOBIAS SCHWARZ
"The fact is that 80 percent of the German public distrusts the United States and 60 percent think Mr. Snowden is a hero," German member of Parliament Hans-Christian Strobele of the Green Party told TheBlaze. "My district is from the middle of Berlin – and my voters expect that we find out exactly what the NSA did. That is the first step and then we have to draw conclusions on how we can protect privacy and the right to have unmonitored conversations."
How Europeans view spying was the paramount topic as about 100 parliament members and ambassadors from 24 different European countries gathered in Washington for a three-day forum on intelligence and security. Members of Congress from the House and Senate committees on homeland security and intelligence participated in the event from Wednesday through Friday.
For Dr. Andreas F. Karlsboeck, a member of the Austrian Parliament, the NSA spying on European allies was a major disappointment.
“European and Americans are friends, therefore it was a shock to find out what Edward Snowden told us what was going on behind the curtain,” Karlsboeck told TheBlaze. “After a period of shock and a period of misunderstandings and a feeling of threatening, the talks started.”
NSA contractor-turned-fugitive leaker Snowden revealed that the U.S. used surveillance of several foreign allies, including political leaders in Germany, France and Brazil. In January, Obama announced the United States would no longer spy on allies.
“We will have to say: America, if you believe it is important to collect all data from our phones, tell us why, and tell us what you’re doing with it,” Karlsboeck said. “Everything was hidden makes this a bad feeling, this concern.”
Karlsboeck and other members of the Austrian Parliament met with U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) at a conference in Austria in June. This led to members of other European parliaments express interest in a similar meeting in Washington.
Pittenger, in his role as chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, organized the forum believing legislators should be involved in the discussion.
“We will seek to convey a transparent discourse about data collection,” Pittenger told TheBlaze. “The focal point is intelligence as it relates to security concerns and threats, how we share the information and how we deal with it.”
The countries represented include larger European allies such as Great Britain, Germany and Italy, to smaller allies like Estonia and Latvia.
NSA staff also participated in the meetings with European lawmakers. Pittenger said the purpose of the conference is not to pave the way for a new international agreement.
“There are already agreements in place, but agreements are only as good as trust,” he said. “I've been in private business and know formal agreements don't hold a candle for trust and knowing who are dealing with. There are all kinds of foreign powers.”
German member of Parliament Stephen Mayer, a member of the Christian Social Union party, said the United States is Germany's strongest ally outside of Europe, but used diplomatic language to explain that the relationship has been strained.
"I’m really not confident with the developments of the last weeks or months because to be honest the relationship between Germany and the USA was sometimes better in the past," Mayer told TheBlaze. "There is room for improvement. I hope this improvement will take place. I’m quite optimistic. We have a common threat now. This binds us together, fighting the Islamic State."
While all German members prefaced their comments by saying they appreciated the conference, all were critical, like Mazmut Ozdemir, a 27-year-old member of Parliament from the Social Democrat Party.
"When we are talking about the violation of civil rights of citizens in Germany and data collecting by the NSA, you have to know, we German parliamentarians cannot stand there and let this happen," Ozdemir told TheBlaze. "We have to react to it. It’s not an act under friends. Friends and allies have to talk transparently to each other."
British Member of Parliament Mark Pritchard had a different view than some other European lawmakers.
“I’d be very disappointed if the United States wasn’t gathering as much information as possible that was keeping it safe and it’s allies safe,” Pritchard told TheBlaze. “How that information is safeguarded and how that information, such as the National Security Agency, is purely a matter for Congress.”
Paolo Gentiloni, a member of the Italian Parliament, said the United States and Europe have a different culture when it comes to privacy.
“We have two problems. A different perception of the privacy issue in U.S. and in Europe,” Gentiloni told TheBlaze. “Europe is much more sensible to the privacy issue and U.S. is much more sensible to the freedom of market in this area. The second problem is that the main companies that owns big data are, as a matter of fact, all American companies. This is particularly sensible in Europe and within Europe and in a special way in Germany, where the privacy issue has always been very important.”
The countries participating in the Washington forum are Albania, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, United Kingdom and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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