International

Merkel sends intelligence delegation to US over NSA spying

Revelations of electronic eavesdropping have brought a series of top European officials to Washington this week

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been outraged over allegations the NSA monitored her personal cellphone.
Yves Herman/AFP/Getty Images

Chancellor Angela Merkel's top foreign affairs and intelligence advisers will quiz officials in Washington, Wednesday, over U.S. intelligence-gathering activities in Germany — including allegations that the National Security Agency tapped the phone of the German chancellor.

The visit is one of a series of trips by high-ranking German and European Union officials to the United States this week after revelations of the scale of the surveillance on allied governments triggered outrage in European capitals.

Merkel wants the United States to agree a "no spying" deal with Berlin and Paris by the end of the year, and to stop alleged espionage against two of Washington's closest EU allies.

"I can confirm that the two top aides from the chancellery are in Washington for talks today," said her spokesman Steffen Seibert. "As you see we are in a process of intense contact with our U.S. partners on the intelligence and political levels, and this process of contact and investigation will take more time."

"The talks aim to set up a new foundation for trust," he told a news conference.

When President Barack Obama visited Berlin in June, Merkel made a point of showing him a balcony in her office overlooking train tracks that crossed the border of her once-divided country — a symbol of her upbringing on the east side of the divide, where eavesdropping by secret police was rampant during the Cold War.

The private moment between the two leaders underscores the degree to which Merkel's personal history has influenced her outrage over revelations that the National Security Agency was monitoring her communications.

The secret spying threatens to damage the close relationship between Obama and Merkel, which, until now, has been defined by candor and trust.

"We are very sensitive to the fact that she comes from the East, and that brings with it a historical perspective on surveillance that is quite powerful," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.

He said that while the White House hopes the strength of Obama's relationship with Merkel will allow them to weather the current controversy, "it also clearly makes it more difficult when she is surprised by these types of revelations."

The White House did not deny reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored Merkel's phone but said no such surveillance is currently taking place.

Reports based on leaks from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden suggest the U.S. has monitored the telephone communications of 35 foreign leaders.

The fact that Merkel was among those targeted has been particularly troubling to many in Europe and on Capitol Hill, given her status as a senior stateswoman, the leader of Europe's strongest economy, and a key U.S. partner in facing a range of economic and security challenges. 

Wednesday's visit comes a day after a European Union team met the head of the NSA, army General Keith Alexander, and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Later this week the heads of Germany's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies will also travel to Washington. European lawmaker Elmar Brok, a German national, told German daily Bild that his meeting with the U.S. officials produced no breakthroughs but did generate good signals.

"Our talks showed that the Americans recognize the immense political damage caused by this affair and are open to more transparency," he said.

The U.S. Congress is weighing new legislative proposals that could limit some of the NSA's more expansive electronic intelligence collection programs.

In the years between Obama's trips to Berlin, he and Merkel have attempted to inject some warmth into their business relationship. During Merkel's 2011 visit to Washington, the two leaders hit the town for dinner at a high-end restaurant, an unusual overture by Obama.

A few days later, he hosted Merkel at the White House for a formal state dinner, where he awarded the chancellor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. honor bestowed upon civilians.

Despite their strong working relationship, Obama and Merkel have had deep policy differences, particularly over the response to the European debt crisis. During the depths of the crisis in 2011 and 2012, Merkel pushed for fiscal austerity on the continent, while Obama and many European leaders backed American-style stimulus.

Both leaders were driven by domestic concerns: for Obama, his looming re-election campaign, and for Merkel, the German public's unease with bailing out its fiscally irresponsible neighbors.

The NSA surveillance disclosures already had revealed another policy split between Obama and Merkel, even before the revelations that the U.S. was monitoring the German leader's phone.

When Obama visited Germany earlier this year, Merkel was under election-year pressure from her privacy-protective constituents to condemn NSA programs that swept up phone and email records, including those of Europeans.

She raised the issue with Obama both publicly and privately, casting a shadow over what had been expected to be a tension-free visit.

Whether or not they manage to restore personal trust, the leaders of two key global economic powers are stuck with each other for some time, yet. Last month, Merkel convincingly won a third term as chancellor, meaning she'll still be in office after Obama leaves the White House in 2017.

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