German Chancellor Angela Merkel dispatched a team to the White House to seek a new intelligence pact with the U.S. following revelations that her mobile phone may have been tapped.
Merkel’s top foreign-policy adviser, Christoph Heusgen, and her intelligence coordinator, Guenter Heiss, will meet today with U.S. officials including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Adviser Susan Rice to try to “rebuild trust,” the chancellery said. The meeting comes as U.S. officials defended spying on foreign leaders.
“This demand is more urgent now,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters today in Berlin, saying that German officials will work on a basis of a “no-spy treaty” to limit intelligence gathering between the two allies. “This process will take time,” he said.
The spat between Merkel and President Barack Obama over suspicions that the National Security Agency had hacked into her mobile phone as well as anger in Europe over NSA data collection has taken a toll on trans-Atlantic relations.
The dispute among the allies threatens to deepen after U.S. intelligence leaders, without specifying whom they targeted, defended the practice of espionage on foreign leaders yesterday in Congress as a standard of spy-craft used by every nation.
NSA Director Keith Alexander told U.S. lawmakers yesterday that European media reports on data collection on millions of citizens were “completely false.” Spy chief Clapper said espionage on U.S. allies is fair game.
“It’s invaluable for us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are and how that would impact us across a whole range of issues,” Clapper told the House intelligence committee during a hearing yesterday in Washington. Asked whether U.S. allies have spied on American leaders, Clapper said, “absolutely.”
The hearing and the disclosure of a White House intelligence review shed little light on whether the NSA spied on leaders including Merkel or how much Congress and Obama knew. The espionage fallout flared up this week as German lawmakers called for an investigation of American spy activity and Spain condemned phone taps.
German authorities are still determining whether Merkel’s phone came under surveillance. Seibert said this week that, if confirmed, “this would represent a grave breach of trust.”
U.S. diplomats in Germany may be expelled if alleged eavesdropping on Merkel’s mobile phone is proven, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said in a Rheinische Post newspaper interview. “If it’s proven that the NSA listened in on the chancellor then we may as an emergency measure expel diplomats,” he said, as cited by the paper.
Today’s meeting will be followed by visits by the president of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, Gerhard Schindler, and the chief of German counterintelligence, Hans-Georg Maassen, the chancellery has said.
U.S. authorities obtained Merkel’s mobile number in 2002, Der Spiegel magazine reported, citing documents including those disclosed by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The surveillance was carried out by an NSA “Special Collection Service” from within the U.S. Embassy adjacent to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Spiegel cited the documents as showing.
Alexander disputed news reports in France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Mundo newspapers that the NSA collected bulk communications records of European as false. The data was collected by other countries and shared with U.S. intelligence or its allies and didn’t involve Spanish or French citizens’ records, he said.
French government spokeswoman Najat Belkacem-Vallaud cast doubt on media reports that it was the French that handed over phone records to the NSA.
“I’ve seen those reports and they seem improbable,” she said. “We need to be able to work together against terrorism, but we can’t allow there to be doubts between allies.”
Clapper said spying on allied leaders goes both ways and compared the European reaction to a scene in the film “Casablanca,” in which a French official feigns shock to discover gambling in the cafe owned by Humphrey Bogart’s character.
“My God, there’s gambling going on here,” Clapper told the U.S. legislators. “You know, it’s the same kind of thing.”