Merkel berates Obama on spying, joins parade of 'shocked' world leaders

A new report suggests that the NSA has monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's not really the alleged spying that's surprising, but the scope of it.

Yves Herman/Reuters/File
German Chancellor Angela Merkel uses her mobile phone before a meeting at a European Union summit in Brussels in this 2011 file photo. The German government has obtained information that the United States may have monitored the mobile phone of Chancellor Merkel, and she called President Barack Obama on Wednesday to demand an immediate clarification, her spokesman said.

Germany’s Angela Merkel demanded an explanation from President Obama Wednesday over allegations that the United States has been monitoring not just German government communications, but her personal cellphone.

Chancellor Merkel, take a number.

Merkel is only the latest in a parade of world leaders lining up to blast the US – and in a few cases, berate Mr. Obama himself – for the reported widespread eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (NSA) on friendly governments’ communications and those of their citizens.

In some cases, the NSA spying extended right to the offices and personal phones of some of the US’s closest allies, reports based on information leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden suggest. After Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto, France’s François Hollande, and – also today – Italy’s Enrico Letta, Merkel acted after press reports claimed that the NSA spying was much broader and reached higher up than previously known.

Merkel placed her “Are you spying on me Barack?” phone call to the White House after the German news magazine Der Spiegel queried Merkel’s office about the allegations in its investigative report.

The German government “has received information that the chancellor’s cellphone may be monitored by American intelligence,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.

Not so, White House spokesman Jay Carney rejoined. Briefing the White House press on Merkel’s call to Obama, Mr. Carney said “the president assured the chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor.”

Carney left unclear whether or not the US had ever monitored Merkel’s phone, but his artful construction – “is not … will not” – only fed suspicions that it probably has.

The US has assured allies and partners that its spying programs are under review and that the US, which is recognized as having the most expansive and advanced surveillance capabilities in the world, is determined to strike the right balance between privacy and national security in its intelligence-gathering activities.

But there are also signs that an embarrassed US is getting a little tired of the issue and would prefer to move on to other things.

Also on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry got an earful on the surveillance allegations when he met with Italian Premier Letta in Rome. Letta demanded to know if reports were true that the US had placed illegal intercepts on Italian communications, Italian government sources said. Mr. Kerry assured Letta the US government is reviewing the allegations and policy fixes, the sources added.

Yet when the State Department issued its readout of the Kerry-Letta meeting, the discussion of American spying was absent. The two leaders discussed Libya, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and ongoing negotiations for a US-European Union free-trade area, the statement said.

But of concerns about the US listening in on friends, not a word.

Merkel’s call to Obama was a reminder of how far and wide the uproar over NSA surveillance programs has reached globally, because it came on the day Obama had been scheduled to host Brazil’s President Rousseff at a state dinner – until Rousseff cancelled her White House visit over the spying scandal.

One of the reasons the reports of monitoring of Merkel’s phone were so plausible is that leaked documents had revealed over the summer that Rousseff’s office phones were among the Brazilian government lines under surveillance.

By the time Obama took Merkel’s call Wednesday, he might have felt justified in wondering when it all would end. Indeed, a week in which he was supposed to have been feting Rousseff started out Monday with a call to French President Hollande, in response to reports in the Paris daily Le Monde that the NSA had gathered up 70 million communications by French citizens over a one-month period.

Hollande told Obama of his “deep disapproval” of such practices, calling them “unacceptable between allies and friends,” according to a readout of the call from his office.

Some foreign leaders, and especially former officials with the luxury of speaking more openly, say the “outrage” expressed by world leaders is primarily aimed at placating domestic audiences. No one is surprised spying is going on, they say, but it’s the massiveness of the reported information-gathering – and the fact it has included leaders’ communications in the sweeps – that has prompted leaders to speak out.

“The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us,” former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio. “Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

The difference, he added, is that “we don’t have the same means as the United States – which makes us jealous.

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