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Merkel pressed on U.S. spying row before German election

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she address media during a news conference at Bundespressekonferenz in Berlin July 19, 2013. REU
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she address media during a news conference at Bundespressekonferenz in Berlin July 19, 2013. REU

By Madeline Chambers

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to reassure German voters on Friday that Germany is not a "surveillance state" and said she was pressing Washington for answers on reports of intrusive snooping by U.S. intelligence.

Revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs have filled German newspapers in the last two weeks and have become a headache for Merkel ahead of a September 22 election in which she is tipped to win a third term.

Her annual summer news conference was dominated by reports that German intelligence had known about the NSA practices.

"Germany is not a surveillance state," she said, adding that while she was committed to finding out the facts, Washington still needed time for its investigations.

"I would rather wait," said Merkel, with a stern expression and sounding a little less confident than on the euro zone crisis that has been the main focus of her second term.

Government snooping is a sensitive subject in Germany due to the heavy surveillance of citizens in the former communist East and under Hitler's Nazis. A magazine report two weeks ago saying German spies were colluding with the NSA caused outrage.

A Deutschlandtrend poll published on Friday showed that more than two thirds of Germans were dissatisfied with what the government had done so far to explain the affair. More than a quarter of voters said it could affect their vote.

Merkel said she had to strike a balance between guaranteeing Germans' security and protecting their privacy.

"We are looking at what is going on, whether it is the tip of the iceberg. And if it is true, what in our eyes is right and what is not right," said Merkel, reiterating German law had to apply on German soil.

PRESSURE

Keen to show German voters she is doing something, Merkel repeated that she was pushing for the United Nations to add a protocol on data protection to a pact on human and civil rights and also for tougher standardized EU data protection rules.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPD), trailing Merkel's conservatives by up to 19 points in opinion polls, have piled pressure on her, arguing she or one of her ministers may have known more than they have let on or that they should have done.

However, the problem for the SPD is that some of the programs may stretch back to their time in office. The SPD served in a Merkel-led 'grand coalition' from 2005 to 2009 and before that led a centre-left coalition under Gerhard Schroeder.

The outcry started with the confirmation by U.S. officials last month of an electronic spying operation codenamed PRISM. Since then a series of reports saying German authorities, including the military, knew about the programs have emerged.

The lack of clarity and the sheer number of media leaks have raised fears among some voters.

"Outrageous that she (Merkel) does not want to see anything, do anything and know anything, even after weeks," tweeted senior lawmaker Renate Kuenast from the opposition Greens.

On the election, Merkel reiterated that she was fighting for a continuation of her centre-right coalition with the Free Democrats but predicted the contest would be "very tight".

Although she is the election favorite, Merkel may have to switch coalition partners, with the most likely alternative a renewal of the conservatives' 'grand coalition' with the SPD.

Accused by critics of lacking a broad strategic vision, Merkel was asked what inspired her to get up the morning.

"I find the work of the chancellor is nice and inspiring because you always have new problems to deal with," she said.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and Annika Breidthardt, Editing by Gareth Jones)

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