Top Obama Aides Sent to Berlin Over U.S. Spy Tensions

President Barack Obama dispatched his chief of staff to Berlin today in an effort to defuse tension with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government over U.S. espionage after the expulsion of the top American spy.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, met with McDonough’s counterpart Peter Altmaier and German intelligence coordinator Guenter Heiss, the two governments said in statements. The group agreed to establish a “structured dialogue” for further talks.

“The full range of issues was addressed, including intelligence and security matters,” the statements said. White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to share additional information about the meeting, saying “these kinds of differences are best resolved in these private, established channels” and not through the media.

U.S.-German relations suffered a blow following the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance and the hacking of Merkel’s mobile phone. Tensions boiled over this month with the emergence of two espionage probes involving suspected double agents working for U.S. intelligence, prompting the July 10 expulsion of the Central Intelligence Agency station chief from the U.S. embassy.

Meeting Set

Merkel and Obama agreed to set up the meeting when they spoke by phone on July 15, according to the German statement. The “structured dialogue” will establish the framework for current and future cooperation, it said.

The chancellor’s government proceeded with the eviction of the top U.S. intelligence official this month even after the Obama administration offered an arrangement resembling the Cold War intelligence-sharing agreement among the countries known as the “Five Eyes” -- the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing the private negotiations.

Merkel last October sent a delegation to Washington in an attempt to negotiate an overhauled intelligence agreement, which came to be known as a “no spy” pact, after reports emerged that the NSA tapped her phone. Obama officials balked, arguing that the U.S. had no such agreement with any ally.

Public Pressure

The rift over how to structure U.S.-German cooperation left Merkel under public pressure to respond as fresh reports of U.S. spying went public. The Federal Prosecutor confirmed two investigations this month, one on an employee of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, accused of selling secrets to U.S. agents. The other involves a suspect from within the Defense Ministry who may have had espionage ties.

“We don’t live in the Cold War anymore, where everybody probably mistrusted everybody else,” Merkel, who has previously reserved her Cold War-mentality accusations for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in an interview with a German broadcaster two days after the high-level expulsion.

“The notion that you always have to ask yourself in close cooperation whether the one sitting across from you could be working for the others -– that’s not a basis for trust,” she said. “So we obviously have different perceptions, and we have to discuss that intensively.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met in Vienna on July 13 in an attempt to bridge the divide. Steinmeier said the trans-Atlantic relationship “is essential and indispensable.”

Creating Rifts

The disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance has roiled U.S. relations with other allies as well. Brazilian President Dilma Roussef canceled a state visit in last September over spying accusations.

The administration also has been under pressure from businesses. Executives of Yahoo! Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc., LinkedIn Corp. and AOL Inc. joined forces to urge Obama to curtail collection of Internet and telephone data.

Many of the surveillance programs were enhanced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. While defending them as necessary to keep the U.S. secure, Obama announced changes in January that he said would restrain some NSA surveillance programs and enhance privacy protections, as well as limit spying on foreign leaders.

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