By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's president, who helped expose the workings of East Germany's dreaded Stasi secret police, said whistleblowers like U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden deserved respect for defending freedom.
Weighing in on a debate that could influence September's federal election, President Joachim Gauck struck a very different tone from that of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has assured Washington that Berlin would not shelter Snowden.
Gauck, who has little power but great moral authority, said people who work for the state were entitled to act according to their conscience, as institutions sometimes depart from the law.
"This will normally only be put right if information is made public. Whoever draws the public's attention to it and acts out of conscience deserves respect," he told Friday's Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.
After the fall of communism, Gauck, a dissident Lutheran pastor, headed a commission in charge of the Stasi's vast archive of files on people it had spied on, using them to root out former Stasi members and collaborators.
His unusual decision to speak out on a hot political issue comes as the fallout from the Snowden affair is dominating headlines in the run-up to the September 22 election where Merkel - who, like Gauck, comes from what was communist East Germany - hopes to win a third term.
"The fear that our telephones or mails are recorded and stored by foreign intelligence services is a constraint on the feeling of freedom and then the danger grows that freedom itself is damaged," he said.
"We are a democratic state with the rule of law with basic rights. Freedom is one of these basic rights."
Merkel has been at pains to maintain friendly relations with Washington at the same time as showing voters she understands their anger about reports of intrusive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA), where Snowden worked as a contractor.
She has repeatedly said the state has a duty to protect its citizens from the threat of terrorism, but that the response must be proportionate.
Opposition parties have accused Merkel of failing to press Washington for answers about the scale of NSA activity.
Reports that German spies cooperated with U.S. agents caused an outcry and one crucial question is how much she or her chief of staff knew. So far she has offered few answers.
The issue has potential to damage Merkel in the election, although opinion polls show little impact so far on a double-digit lead for her conservatives over the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD).
Referring to communism and Nazism, Gauck said Germany had painful experiences of living in a security state where no one was safe to speak out:
"We Germans have had to experience the abuse of state power with secret services twice in our history. And therefore we are sensitive (to this) and our American friends must accept that."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)