Berlin to meet US ambassador over spying reports: Source

German Chancellor Angela Merkel taking her mobile phone out of her handbag during a parliamentary session in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel taking her mobile phone out of her handbag during a parliamentary session in Berlin. PHOTO: EPA

BERLIN (Reuters/AFP) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff will meet the United States ambassador on Thursday to discuss allegations that US spies bugged senior government ministers, a German government source said.

In the latest twist in an ongoing scandal over extensive US spying in Europe that has caused outrage in Germany, media reported that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had bugged the economy and finance ministers.

"The Chancellor's Chief of Staff has invited US Ambassador John Emerson to a meeting because of the new bugging revelations. The conversation is due to take place on Thursday afternoon," the source told Reuters.

"We confirm that US ambassador Emerson was invited to the chancellery to talk," a German government source told AFP, after the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily said Dr Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier had asked for the meeting.

It was unclear whether the discussion had already taken place, and the US embassy had no immediate comment.

German media had reported on Wednesday that new documents released by WikiLeaks appear to show the United States did not just tap Dr Merkel's mobile phone but also eavesdropped on several ministers.

German-US relations were badly strained after fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed widespread US foreign surveillance, although a probe into the alleged tapping of Merkel's mobile phone was dropped last month over a lack of proof.

The federal prosecutor's office said on Thursday it was considering reopening an investigation into US National Security Agency (NSA) activities in Germany in light of the new evidence.

According to the latest Wikileaks documents, the NSA did not limit its snooping activities to Dr Merkel, and showed particular interest in the activities of the ministries of finance, economy and agriculture, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote.

It said whistleblowing website WikiLeaks had shown it a list of 69 phone numbers that were reportedly targeted, belonging to ministers and senior officials.

The list appears to date back to between 2010 and 2012. Current Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was among those spied on by the NSA, the report said, although it noted that he was in the opposition at the time.

The list also features the number of former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, who left the job in 1999.

But the number is "still active", according to the Sueddeutsche report, and now rings through to the office of current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

While Snowden alleged US spying on many European governments, his disclosures triggered particular anger in Germany where bitterness lingers over mass state spying on citizens by the Stasi secret police in former communist East Germany where Merkel grew up.

Dr Merkel herself phoned US President Barack Obama over the 2013 revelations and in public told Germany's traditional post-war ally and Nato partner that "spying between friends just isn't on".

Washington appeared to confirm that her phone had been tapped when US officials said the cellphone would not be a target in the future.

Privacy is a particularly sensitive issue in Germany due to its experience of extensive surveillance by the Stasi secret police during the Cold War and the Gestapo in the Nazi era.

Asked about the reports, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he was most worried by the risks of industrial espionage, particularly given the links his ministry has to companies. "It is an absurd carry-on," Mr Gabriel told ARD television.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, responsible for security issues, said Germany would look at the latest allegations.

"We have become more distrustful," he said.

The role of Germany's spies has also been in the spotlight since reports surfaced earlier this year that its BND foreign intelligence agency had cooperated with the NSA.