Surveillance Scandal: Germany and France Tell Obama, Let's Talk

By Patrick Goodenough | October 25, 2013 | 6:21 AM EDT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande arrive for an E.U. summit in Brussels on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. (AP Photo)

( – Germany and France plan to seek talks with Washington with the aim of reaching an understanding “before the end of the year” on the alleged National Security Agency surveillance of European leaders and citizens.

The announcement came late Thursday from European Commission president Herman van Rompuy, reporting back on a European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels.

He said other E.U. countries may also join the French-German initiative.

President Obama in separate phone calls this week sought to allay concerns raised by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over reports on large-scale NSA phone-tapping in France, and the bugging of Merkel’s cell phone.

Asked Thursday about the difficulties in trying to convince people abroad to trust the U.S. on this, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “I think people actually do around the world – I would make this point – do trust President Obama, have an opinion of him that people think that he says what he means and he does what he says and that he keeps his word when he says things.”

“Now, they may not agree with the policies, but I actually think that a lot of people around the world do trust, when the president comes out and says we’re not spying on everyone, they do believe him, actually.”

Earlier reports since the summer, based on information passed to media organizations by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, had already troubled European leaders. They included claims that U.S. intelligence agencies had bugged the very building in Brussels where Thursday’s summit was held.

In yet another of a long series of allegations, The Guardian reported Thursday on a Snowden-leaked 2006 memo suggesting that the NSA had monitored phone conversations of 35 unnamed world leaders.

Van Rompuy said the surveillance issue had raised “deep concern.”

The E.U. leaders had underlined the value of the close E.U.-U.S. relationship and “stressed that intelligence gathering is a vital element in the fight against terrorism.”

“They expressed their conviction that the partnership must be based on respect and on trust, including as concerns the work and cooperation of secret services,” he said. “A lack of trust would prejudice the necessary cooperation in the field of intelligence gathering.”

When she arrived in Brussels for the summit, Merkel said “we need trust among allies and partners, and such trust needs to be restored” between Germany and the U.S.

“Spying among friends is never acceptable,” she said. “This is not primarily about me, but about all our citizens in particular.”

Other leaders also commented on the issue, with Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok saying it was unacceptable to tap the phone calls of a leader of a sovereign country, and adding that he could not guarantee the same thing was happening in his country.

After Obama and Merkel spoke by phone on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president had told the chancellor the U.S. “is not” and “will not” monitor her cellphone – but did not address the question of whether it has done so at any time before Wednesday.

On Thursday both Carney and Harf were asked again about the matter, and both declined to comment on whether the U.S. had monitored Merkel’s communications in the past.

“We are not going to comment publicly on every specified alleged intelligence activity,” said Carney; “As a matter of course, we just don’t comment publicly on each allegation out there in the press,” said Harf.

Earlier on Thursday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle summoned U.S. Ambassador John Emerson to warn that bilateral friendship was at stake over the surveillance claims

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, the foreign minister gave a short statement that implied Merkel was not satisfied by the assurances given her by Obama in their earlier conversation.

“We expect that these activities that have been reported will be comprehensively investigated,” Westerwelle said. “We need the truth now.”

“We made this quite clear. For Germany it is unacceptable that the mobile phone of our federal chancellor may have been subject to surveillance activities by our American partners,” he said. “For us, spying on close friends and partners is totally unacceptable. This undermines trust and this can harm our friendship.”

People around the world ‘do trust President Obama’

Harf said of the meeting that Emerson had assured Westerwelle “that our ongoing bilateral consultations on allegations of information gathering by U.S. government agencies would continue.”

She pointed to Obama’s remarks at an August 9 press conference at the White House, when he announced he had asked an independent group to review America’s surveillance activities.

“They’ll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy,” he said at the time.

“To others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” Obama said. “Our intelligence is focused, above all, on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people, and – in many cases – protect our allies.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow