Did Obama Apologize to Angela Merkel for Nothing?

Edward Snowden's disclosure that the NSA tapped the German Chancellor's phone has been called into question. So what really happened?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds her mobile phone during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels, 27 June 2007.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds her mobile phone during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels, 27 June 2007.

Photograph by Getty Images

In June, when President Obama was in Europe for a visit, Harald Range, Germany’s top public prosecutor, told the German Parliament that he was undertaking an investigation. Former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden had claimed that the United States government had bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, as part of the country's large-scale electronic espionage, and listened in, for years. In May, Obama said that Snowden’s disclosures about spying on an ally had “created strains” in America’s relationship with Germany. Merkel had called him on the phone—probably on a landline—to seek clarification, and Obama had apologized. Considering the leaders were about to see each other, for a summit in Brussels, the timing of Range's announcement was a little awkward.

But this week, according to Reuters, Range announced that there is no proof that U.S. Intelligence had, in fact, tapped Merkel’s phone. He said, "The document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database."

"There is no proof at the moment which could lead to charges that Chancellor Merkel's phone connection data was collected or her calls tapped."

Range said that neither Snowden, nor Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, nor Der Spiegel—which held a document that seemed to be evidence of tapping—had offered further evidence for his prosecution.

Which leads to a whole bouquet of new questions: could Snowden’s information possibly be inaccurate, or could it be some sort of disinformation? What was the Der Spiegel document that seemed so convincing a few months ago? And: if the tapping wasn’t real, why did Obama rush to apologize and make nice to Merkel? If true that there was no wiretap, an entire diplomatic drama needs to be reinterpreted.

Meanwhile, Germany's Green and Left parties have rallied to bring Snowden to Berlin (from Moscow) to furnish evidence about NSA machinations. But on Friday, according to the Guardian, Germany’s constitutional court ruled against them. The German government maintained that Snowden's presence in Germany could be detrimental to relationships with the U.S.

What’s behind this sudden new friendliness? Possibly, it will require a new Snowden to find out. 

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