BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended Germany's cooperation with U.S. intelligence, dismissing comparisons of its techniques to those used in communist East Germany in an attempt to ease tensions a day before talks on the thorny issue in Washington.
Just two months before an election, the German weekly Der Spiegel caused a furor with a weekend report that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) worked closely with German spies.
The opposition has pressed Merkel on how much she knew about intrusive U.S. surveillance tactics, casting doubt on her apparent surprise. The chancellor has dispatched her interior minister to discuss the issue with officials in Washington.
In an interview with the weekly Die Zeit, Merkel said a certain level of cooperation was needed to ensure citizens' security.
"For decades, intelligence services have been working together under certain conditions that are tightly regulated in our country, and this serves our security," Merkel said.
Government snooping is a particularly sensitive topic in Germany due to heavy surveillance in communist East Germany and under Hitler's Nazis. If suspicions are raised that Merkel knew more about it than she has let on, it could become a hot election issue.
Merkel told Die Zeit there was a need to discuss the balance between privacy and security, but protection against terrorism was not possible without the option of electronic surveillance.
"(I want) the necessary discussions with the United States to be conducted in a spirit which, despite the many justified questions, never forgets that America has been our most loyal ally over the decades and still is," she said.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich will meet President Barack Obama's adviser on homeland security and the U.S. justice minister on Thursday.
"I would like to make clear to our American partners how important it is to ensure things are proportionate in terms of the personal rights of our citizens," he said in a statement.
In addition to the controversy about the monitoring of private communications, Germany has demanded explanations of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of large-scale spying by the NSA and by Britain on allies including Germany and other EU states.
Talks about the eavesdropping are taking place alongside transatlantic free trade talks starting this week.
Germany's intelligence agencies are coordinated by Merkel's office and overseen by a parliamentary committee whose deliberations are secret. The domestic spy agency has said it did not know about such extensive U.S. and British eavesdropping.
But the opposition insists that Merkel or her chief of staff Ronald Pofalla, who coordinates the secret services, must have known more.
Merkel rejected comparisons with the former German Democratic Republic, where she grew up.
"For me, there is no comparison at all between the state security (Stasi) of the GDR and the work of intelligence services in democratic states," Merkel told Die Zeit.
"These are completely different things and such comparisons only lead to a trivialization of what the state security did to people in East Germany," she said.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Stephen Brown and Kevin Liffey)