“As you know, we’ve had a range of discussions with Germany over the course of the last several months, and I expect those will continue,” Jen Psaki told a press briefing. “But those will happen through diplomatic channels,” she said, adding that “our relationship is better served by having those take place through those channels.”
Asked directly whether the administration was considering expelling somebody from the German Embassy – a standard diplomatic comeback to an expulsion – Psaki said, “I don’t have anything more to add on this particular topic.”
She declined to confirm or comment on two alleged spying cases that have arising in recent days, one involving an official at Germany’s foreign intelligence agency who was arrested last week on suspicion of being a double agent for the U.S., and the other involving a defense ministry official.
Psaki also sidestepped a question on why it would be considered appropriate to spy on an ally.
She pointed several times to a review of intelligence-gathering procedures ordered by President Obama late last year, and said factors taken into account in this regard included “keeping Americans safe, keeping allies in other countries safe, as well as taking steps to reform and revise some of our systems when needed.”
Obama called for that review after a series of media reports, based on information provided by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, aired claims about NSA monitoring of European facilities, citizens and leaders.
Allegations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone was among the NSA targets added to the controversy – Merkel at the time called it a “breach of trust” – but it was only after the two recent alleged spying cases emerged that Germany took the unusual and public step of ordering the CIA chief to leave.
“The representative of the U.S. intelligence services at the United States Embassy has been asked to leave Germany,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement Thursday.
“The request was made in the light of an ongoing investigation by federal prosecutors as well as unresolved questions posed months ago about the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies in Germany,” he said. “The federal government takes the matter very seriously.”
In a joint press appearance with the prime minister of Moldova, Merkel alluded to the issue, saying that any spying on an ally would be “a waste of energy.”
In the face of new threats in the 21st century trust between allies was essential, she said, and everything possible must be done to ensure that those who share the same values trust each other and work together.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, briefing reporters in Texas, declined to comment on intelligence matters. Asked whether the U.S. would consider a tit-for-tat response to the German expulsion, he said he was “not in a position to offer any reaction, either in terms of articulating our position or previewing any actions that we may or may not take.”
Earnest said he was not aware of any plans by the president to phone Merkel, “but they speak pretty frequently.”
At the end of the review he had ordered into signals intelligence, Obama said in a speech last January that new guidance being put in place “will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances [and] our trade and investment relationships.”
He said people around the world, including foreign leaders, should know that the U.S. is not spying on those “who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.”
“I have made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies,” he said.
At the same time, Obama made it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies would “continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective.”
“But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners,” he added. “And the changes I’ve ordered do just that.”
Psaki said Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Germany counterpart, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, may have the chance to speak in the coming days.
Kerry, who is in Afghanistan on Friday following a visit to China, is expected to travel to Vienna at the weekend to join nuclear talks underway with Iran. Steinmeier, along with foreign ministers from the other countries involved in the talks, will likely also attend.
During a visit to Washington last February, Steinmeier said the U.S. and Germany had “different assessments as regards the importance of privacy and security and granting civil liberties.”