President Barack Obama this week sought to assuage tensions that have crept into the U.S.-Germany relationship following revelations that the National Security Agency had been spying upon Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2002, with outrage in Berlin centred on the surveillance of her mobile phone.
On Wednesday Ms. Merkel was said to have accepted an invitation from Mr. Obama to visit the U.S. in the coming months to discuss, among other things, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations and NATO Summit, and other “shared interests.”
Although a White House readout of the two leaders’ phone call suggested that Mr. Obama had principally called Ms. Merkel to wish her a speedy recovery following pelvic injury and to congratulate her on the formation of her new cabinet, their discussion comes in the wake of a bilateral rift over the spying scandal.
While a spokesperson declined to say whether the NSA phone tap had been discussed, the release of top-secret intelligence documents on U.S. spy programmes by whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last summer led to Ms. Merkel’s office warning that “bugging friends is unacceptable.”
Facts about the NSA’s surveillance of targets in Germany came to light along with information on the Agency’s monitoring of persons and institutions in a host of “friendly nations,” including India, the European Union, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey. “Traditional ideological adversaries and sensitive Middle Eastern countries,” were also on the list of targets, reports noted.
Soon after this it appeared that Mr. Obama was seeking to place distance between the White House and allegations that the NSA spied on Washington’s allies in Berlin, with Spokesperson Jay Carney saying, “The concerns raised by our allies cause us concern too.”
Congressional committees then grilled intelligence bosses such as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA chief Keith Alexander, and some leaders such as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein said they were “unequivocally… totally opposed” to the NSA’s collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies.
Following a sharp debate on imposing some restrictions on the programmes of the NSA, which in theory operates under rules set by the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, Mr. Obama appeared to be leaning towards recommendations of a review panel to “shift responsibility for the bulk collection of telephone records away from the NSA and on to the phone companies,” in a bid to restore public confidence.
In a press conference last month Mr. Obama said that in light of the disclosures coming from documents supplied by Mr. Snowden, “It is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular programme may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse.”
With Mr. Obama likely to make a final decision on reforming surveillance programmes in the coming months, his broad endorsement of reform came on the back of a federal judge saying for the first time ever that the NSA’s programmes were “very likely” to be unconstitutional.