U.S. Ambassador Emerson is surrounded by body guards as he arrives at the Chancellery in Berlin
By Michael Nienaber and Lesley Wroughton
BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Germany is taking seriously the latest reports about U.S. spying on senior government ministers and they are putting strains on vital security cooperation between the two countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said on Thursday.
German media have reported that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) bugged several senior government members, including the economy and finance ministers, as well as Merkel.
The reports are the latest twist in a long-running scandal triggered by revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of wide-ranging U.S. espionage spying on close allies.
Privacy is an especially sensitive issue in Germany after the extensive surveillance by Communist East Germany's Stasi secret police and by the Gestapo in the Nazi era.
"Such repeated events strain German and American intelligence cooperation which is essential for the safety of our citizens," spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
Earlier, in an unusual move, Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier summoned the U.S. ambassador and demanded an explanation for the reports. Altmaier told the envoy that German law must be respected and violations punished, Seibert said.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman confirmed the meeting but declined to elaborate. He denied the latest reports have had a negative impact on the two countries' relations.
"What I can tell you is that nothing's changed about the strong relationship that we have and will continue to have with Germany," spokesman John Kirby said.
Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily and broadcasting network ARD reported that the NSA had targeted 69 telephone and fax numbers in the German government administration. They based their reports on documents released on the Wikileaks website.
Among the officials targeted were the economy minister and as well as several deputy ministers, the reports said.
Asked about the reports, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel -- who is also Germany's Vice Chancellor -- 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," Gabriel told ARD television.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who is 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.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Gareth Jones)