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LONDON (Reuters) - 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 program that has shocked Berlin, the Guardian said on Wednesday.
Based on leaks by fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, the Guardian reported earlier this month that Britain's Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) had tapped international telephone and Internet traffic on a massive scale in a program codenamed "Tempora".
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who has previously compared the allegations to "a Hollywood nightmare", wrote to the British justice and interior ministers seeking clarification of the legal basis for Tempora and asking who had authorized it, the Guardian reported on Wednesday.
The British justice ministry told Reuters it would respond to the letter "in due course" but said nothing about its contents. The Home Office, or interior ministry, said it did not comment on private correspondence.
Germans are highly 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.
"We and the British are friends. This is not the way friends behave," said Rainer Bruederle, a leading member of the Free Democrats (FDP), junior party in Angela Merkel's center-right coalition to which Leutheusser-Scharrenberger also belongs.
Bruederle, in an interview for the Nord-West Zeitung, said he would urge Merkel to raise the issue with British Prime Minister David Cameron at their next meeting, adding that Germany could not accept infringements of its citizens' privacy.
The German letter also asked whether "concrete suspicions" triggered the data collection or whether the email traffic, Facebook postings, Internet search histories and phone call logs were being held as part of a general trawl, the Guardian said.
The Snowden leaks about the practices of the U.S. and British spying agencies have caused a global scandal and have resulted in multiple diplomatic headaches for both Washington and London.
U.S. authorities want to get hold of the former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency but he has so far eluded them. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Tuesday that Snowden was in the transit area of a Moscow airport but ruled out handing him to the Americans.
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.
"We operate under the rule of law and are accountable for it. In some countries secret intelligence is used to control their people - in ours, it only exists to protect their freedoms," Hague said.
Additional reporting by Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones