By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - America's National Security Agency works closely with Germany and other Western states on a 'no questions asked'-basis, former NSA employee Edward Snowden said in comments that undermine Chancellor Angela Merkel's indignant talk of "Cold War" tactics.
"They are in bed with the Germans, just like with most other Western states," German magazine Der Spiegel quotes him as saying in an interview published on Sunday that was carried out before he fled to Hong Kong in May and divulged details of extensive secret U.S. surveillance.
"Other agencies don't ask us where we got the information from and we don't ask them. That way they can protect their top politicians from the backlash in case it emerges how massively people's privacy is abused worldwide," he said.
His comments about cooperation with governments overseas, which he said were led by the NSA's Foreign Affairs Directorate, appear to contradict the German government's show of surprise at the scale of the U.S. electronic snooping.
Germany has demanded explanations for Snowden's allegations of large-scale spying by the NSA, and by Britain via a programme codenamed 'Tempora', on their allies including Germany and other European Union states, as well as EU institutions and embassies.
Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed out during President Barack Obama's recent visit that Germany had avoided terrorist attacks thanks to information from allies. But she says there must be limits to the intrusion on privacy and wants this discussed next week in parallel with the start of EU-U.S. free trade talks.
Berlin has alluded repeatedly to "Cold War" tactics - Merkel used the term again on Saturday at a political rally - and has said spying on friends is unacceptable. Her spokesman has said a transatlantic trade deal requires a level of "mutual trust".
The domestic intelligence chief has said he knew nothing of such widespread surveillance by the NSA. But German opposition parties - with an eye on September's federal election - insist that somebody in Merkel's office, where the German intelligence agencies are coordinated, must have known what was going on.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Der Spiegel report, which follows a report last week in French daily Le Monde saying France also had an extensive surveillance programme.
Der Spiegel has reported that on an average day, the NSA monitored about 20 million German phone connections and 10 million internet data sets, rising to 60 million phone connections on busy days.
Germans are particularly sensitive about eavesdropping because of the intrusive surveillance in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and during the Nazi era.
Snowden, a U.S. citizen, fled in May a few weeks before the details he provided about the NSA were published and is believed to have been holed up in Moscow airport since June 23.
Bolivia offered asylum on Saturday to Snowden, joining leftist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua in defiance of Washington, which is demanding his arrest for divulging details of the secret U.S. spy programs.
Der Spiegel said the interview was conducted while Snowden was living in Hawaii, via encrypted emails with U.S. documentary maker Laura Poitras and hacker Jacob Appelbaum.
Snowden told them that America's closest allies sometimes went even further than the NSA in their zeal for gathering data.
The Tempora programme of Britain's GCHQ eavesdropping agency is known in the intelligence world as a "full take".
"It sucks up all information, no matter where it comes from and which laws are broken," Snowden said. "If you send a data packet and goes through Britain, we'll get it. If you download anything, and the server is in Britain, we'll get it."
If the NSA is ordered to target an individual, it virtually take over that person's data "so the target's computer no longer belongs to him, it more or less belongs to the U.S. government".
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)