* German minister seeks information after Guardian reports
* Reports are based on leaks from fugitive Edward Snowden
* Merkel spokesman plays down talk of rift with Britain
(Updates with German government reaction, changes dateline)
By Estelle Shirbon and Erik Kirschbaum
LONDON/BERLIN, June 26 Germany's justice
minister has written to two British ministers demanding to know
to what extent a British spy agency targeted German citizens in
a large-scale data trawling programme that has upset Berlin.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman quickly dismissed
talk of a rift between Britain and Germany and said he did not
expect the issue to come up at a European Union summit this week
when Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron will meet.
Based on leaks by fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor
Edward Snowden, the Guardian newspaper reported earlier this
month that Britain's Government Communication Headquarters
(GCHQ) had tapped international telephone and Internet traffic
on a massive scale in a programme codenamed "Tempora".
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger
wrote to the British justice and interior ministers seeking
clarification of the legal basis for Tempora.
"It is... quite understandable that this matter has caused a
great deal of concern in Germany," she wrote in the letter, a
copy of which was obtained by Reuters. "Questions have been
raised concerning the extent to which especially German citizens
have been targeted."
Germans are sensitive about government monitoring, having
living through the Stasi secret police in communist East Germany
and with lingering memories of the Gestapo under the Nazis.
The British justice ministry told Reuters it would respond
to the letter "in due course". The Home Office, or interior
ministry, said it did not comment on private correspondence.
Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert played down the issue at
a regular news conference in Berlin on Wednesday.
"We're in contact with the British on this valued path of
cooperation and that will certainly continue," he said.
His comments were echoed by the British side.
"We have an excellent and very close relationship with the
German government," Cameron's spokesman said. "We can be very
clear to everyone ... that all our agencies work within a strict
legal and policy framework."
The sharpest German criticism of the Tempora claims has come
from the junior partner in Merkel's centre-right coalition, the
Free Democrats (FDP), to which the justice minister belongs.
"We and the British are friends. This is not the way friends
behave," said one of the FDP leaders, Rainer Bruederle, telling
Wednesday's edition of the Nord-West Zeitung that Germany could
not accept infringements of its citizens' privacy.
The FDP appears to want to turn the spying revelations into
a campaign issue as it struggles to build enough support to
clear the five percent hurdle needed to enter the next
parliament after Germany's Sept. 22 election.
The Snowden leaks about the practices of the U.S. and
British spying agencies caused a global scandal and resulted in
multiple diplomatic headaches for both Washington and London.
The Snowden revelations, and in particular the allegation
that British spies handed over large amounts of data to their
U.S. colleagues, have also stirred lively debate within Britain.
The British government generally refrains from commenting on
the work of its security services, but Foreign Secretary William
Hague alluded to the Snowden scandal and defended U.S.-British
intelligence cooperation in a speech in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
"We should have nothing but pride in the unique and
indispensable intelligence-sharing relationship between Britain
and the United States," Hague said, according to a copy of his
speech circulated by the Foreign Office.
"In recent weeks this has been a subject of some discussion.
Let us be clear about it. In both our countries intelligence
work takes place within a strong legal framework."
(Additional reporting by Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by