Monday

17th Feb 2020

US struggling to contain Europe spying scandal

  • Obama in Berlin: Reports say he knew the NSA was tapping Merkel's phone (Photo: Bundesregierung)

The US administration is struggling to cope with conflicting reports about the extent of President Barack Obama's knowledge about National Security Agency (NSA) spying on European leaders.

On Sunday (27 October), Germany's Bild am Sonntag quoted US intelligence sources saying Obama was briefed in 2010 by NSA chief Keith Alexander about Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone being tapped.

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The NSA quickly denied the Bild report.

NSA chief Keith Alexander "did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said the same day

"News reports claiming otherwise are not true," she added.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama only learned about the surveillance of some 35 leaders in June, after having ordered an internal review in the wake of revelations published by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The reported timing is still an embarrassment, however.

Obama visited Berlin in June and reassured Merkel and the German public that his intelligence services are not involved in any illegal spying.

In addition, the WSJ reports that some leaders are still being tapped, as the programmes have been scheduled to end but are still running.

The effect on German-US relations has been dramatic.

The US ambassador in Berlin was summoned to the German foreign ministry last week, while Merkel herself has strongly criticised US surveillance. Her intelligence chiefs are travelling to Washington this week to seek explanations.

The spying scandal also has united EU countries in their response.

France and Germany last week called for an international agreement on the work of intelligence agencies with the US.

France has also been irked by reports of mass surveillance, with some 70 million communications of French citizens reportedly being snooped in just one month by the NSA.

Spain is likely to join the alliance, after El Mundo on Monday reported that some 60 million Spanish phone calls were monitored from December to January.

The US ambassador to Madrid was summoned to the foreign ministry on Monday.

The Spanish reports are also based on documents provided by Snowden.

The White House has declined to comment on the matter.

But a Republican congressman, Mike Rogers, told CNN that Europeans should be grateful for the mass surveillance.

“If the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping champagne corks. It’s a good thing. It keeps the French safe. It keeps the US safe. It keeps our European allies safe,” he said.

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