Germany offered a fresh start in ties with the U.S. after asking the top American intelligence officer in Berlin to leave in response to two spying cases.
The expulsion, described as “an extraordinary event” by a German Foreign Ministry spokesman, reflects Chancellor Angela Merkel’s frustration about U.S. spying on one of its most important allies and the political risk of growing mistrust of American intentions among the German public.
President Barack Obama’s administration signaled recognition of Germany’s value as a partner while sidestepping specifics of espionage allegations that led to the expulsion of the top American intelligence officer in Berlin yesterday.
“We need and expect a partnership based on trust,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin today. “We would like to reinvigorate our partnership and friendship on the basis of honesty.”
Steinmeier said he’ll convey that message to Secretary of State John Kerry when they meet this weekend in Vienna for talks on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Merkel and Obama have no immediate plans for a phone call, Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s press secretary, told reporters in Berlin.
Germany’s action marked the lowest point in relations with the U.S. since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed extensive files on surveillance activities in the U.S. and abroad. Among the disclosures was the alleged hacking of Merkel’s mobile phone.
In January, Obama tried to address concerns on both sides of the Atlantic by directing U.S. spy agencies to stop monitoring friendly international leaders, in part to placate German anger over the monitoring of Merkel’s phone calls. Obama also called for extending privacy protections to foreigners whose communications are vacuumed up by NSA surveillance.
German officials had asked for their citizens to get the same privacy protections Americans do.
“We’re in touch because we recognize the value and the strong partnership that exists between the United States and Germany,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters yesterday.
One joint project at risk is U.S.-European talks on creating the world’s biggest free-trade area. Merkel and Obama back the effort, which faces public resistance across the 28-nation European Union. The proposed accord is known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
The rift over spying is “a bad sign for the TTIP negotiations,” said Annette Heuser, executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, a nonprofit group that promotes cooperation. While the spying incident probably won’t derail the talks, it will probably slow them down, she said.
Lawmakers and officials in Merkel’s governing coalition of Germany’s two biggest parties have urged Obama’s administration for months to come clean on surveillance of Germans and make a no-spying pledge that the U.S. has made clear it won’t provide.
Pressure for Merkel to act grew as German politicians demanded signals of U.S. cooperation in clearing up the cases. One involves an alleged American double agent in Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, known as BND. The other suspect worked at the Defense Ministry, according to Spiegel Online.
“The U.S. still hasn’t grasped what a burden this case is for the German-American relationship,” Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said yesterday. “Germany cannot tolerate espionage activity on its soil.”