Obama plays down concern over US surveillance

US president insists encroachment on privacy is ‘strictly limited’


US president Barack Obama has insisted his intelligence services are “not rifling through emails” or eavesdropping on phone calls of ordinary citizens, as European concerns over the Prism programme overshadow his trip to Germany.

After talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel this morning, and ahead of a Brandenburg Gate address this afternoon, he dismissed talk that the transatlantic alliance was “fading in importance”.

The president’s 25-hour visit to the German capital, baking in 33 degree heat, is his first since taking office. The city centre is in security lockdown, with 8,000 German police on duty in government quarter from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate down to Potsdamer Platz, where the first family is staying.

Mr Obama began his day with a courtesy call on German president Joachim Gauck, followed by an hour of talks with Dr Merkel.

At a subsequent press conference, quizzed about the Prism electronic surveillance programme, Mr Obama was said he was confident it struck an appropriate balance between security and civil liberties.

Any encroachment on privacy was “strictly limited”, he said, allow a tracking of calls made from telephone numbers of interest and any further investigations supervised by a “court-approved process”.

“This is not a situation where we are rifling through ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens. This is not a situation where we go into internet and start searching any way we want,” said Mr Obama.

“We know of at least 50 threats averted because of this information - not just in the US but threats here in Germany.”

Dr Merkel, conscious of her voters’ historic sensitivity to state-sponsored snooping, chose her words carefully.

She said the two governments had agreed to close talks on the Prism programme in the future, warning that there “needs to be a balance of proportionality between security of people and privacy rights”.

Mr Obama struck a diplomatic if mildly critical role of his host when asked about Europe’s ongoing economic difficulties. Saying there was no “perfect recipe” to balance growth, reform and fiscal responsibility, he said he was “confident” Dr Merkel cares about maintaining the euro zone and the European project.

“In pursuit of long-term policies ... it is important that we don’t lose sight of the main goal: to make people’s lives better,” he said. “If we see youth unemployment go too high then at some point we have got to modulate our approach to make sure don’t just lose a generation that might never recover in their careers.”

Mr Obama acknowledged that he had disappointed some expectations in Europe since taking office and promised to redouble his efforts to close the US military base in Guantanamo Bay. After a decade of military engagement since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the president expressed concern at the consequences on a society living on a permanent war footing.

“The threat of terrorism remains real and we have to remain vigilant and take steps consistent with values and international law,” he said. “But we also have to guard against being so driven by fear that we are not changing the fabric of our society in ways don’t intend and don’t want for the future.”

The two leaders agreed that this week’s G8 meeting had made progress on Syria, even if there remained a policy distance to Russia on how to proceed.

Mr Obama expressed optimism that president Vladimir Putin would agree to send allow a UN team gather independent evidence of the Syrian government’s military campaign against its own people, including the use of chemical weapons. This in turn would help open the door to a Syrian transition.

“Without a different government you cannot bring peace and we are going to sectarian divisions will get worse and spill over into other parts of region, and that is good for nobody,” said Mr Obama.

He insisted that reports of US readiness to supply arms to opposition groups were “a little cranked”.

“What we want to do is end a war,” he said.

Dr Merkel stuck to the official line that Berlin was legally prevented from supplying arms to conflict zones.

“That is not designed solely the Syrian question but it does not mean we cannot play a constructive role, political or humanitarian,” she said.

On Afghanistan, Mr Obama was cautious about the prospects of direct talks with the Taliban, announced yesterday. He defended the process as a “parallel track” to existing policy and played down reports that this had prompted a rift with President Hamid Karzai.

Mr Karzai has suspended talks with the US on a new security deal, reportedly in protest at his government’s exclusion from exploratory talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the 12-year war.

“President Karzai recognises the need for political reconciliation, the challenge is how to get things started when you are also at war. My hope and expectation is that, despite these challenges, the process will proceed.”

At his Brandenburg Gate address this afternoon, five years after his last visit and half a century after president Kennedy, Mr Obama is expected to play down talk of a cooling-off in transatlantic relations as Washington turns to Asia.

“The relationship with Europe remains the cornerstone of our freedom of security, Europe is our partner in almost everything we do,” he said alongside Dr Merkel. “Although the nature of our challenges have changed, the strength of our relationship, the enduring bonds based on common values and common ideals very much remains.”

While he works, the Obama family hit the tourist trail, visiting memorials to the Holocaust, the Berlin Wall and the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.

A shopping trip is on the agenda for the afternoon and, while their parents attend an official dinner this evening at Charlottenburg Palace, daughters Malia and Sasha will go to the cinema. The Obamas depart for Washington this evening.