Angela Merkel's top foreign affairs and intelligence advisers will quiz officials in Washington today over the activities of US spies in Germany, including allegations they tapped the German chancellor's phone.
The visit is one of a series of trips by high-ranking German and European Union officials to the United States this week after revelations of the scale of the surveillance triggered outrage and shattered European trust in Washington.
Dr Merkel wants the United States to agree a “no spying” deal with Berlin and Paris by the end of the year and to stop alleged espionage against two of Washington’s closest EU allies.
“I can confirm that the two top aides from the chancellery are in Washington for talks today,” said her spokesman Steffen Seibert. “As you see we are in a process of intense contact with our U.S. partners on the intelligence and political levels, and this process of contact and investigation will take more time.”
“The talks aim to set up a new foundation for trust,” he told a news conference.
The White House did not deny reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored Merkel's phone but said no such surveillance was taking place now.
Today's visit comes a day after a European Union team met the head of the NSA, army General Keith Alexander, and US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Later this week the heads of Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies will also travel to Washington.
European lawmaker Elmar Brok, a German national, told German daily Bild that his meeting with the US officials produced no breakthroughs but did generate good signals. “Our talks showed that the Americans recognise the immense political damage caused by this affair and are open to more transparency,” he said.
The US Congress is weighing new legislative proposals that could limit some of the NSA’s more expansive electronic intelligence collection programs
Yesterday the US’s top spymaster has said that the White House had long been aware in general terms of the agency’s overseas eavesdropping, stoutly defending the NSA’s intelligence-gathering methods and suggesting possible divisions within the Obama administration.
The official, James Clapper Jr, the director of national intelligence, testified before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday that the NSA had kept senior officials in the National Security Council informed of surveillance it was conducting in foreign countries.
He did not specifically say whether US president Barack Obama was told of these spying efforts, but he appeared to challenge assertions in recent days that the White House had been in the dark about some of the agency's practices.
Mr Clapper and the agency’s director, General Alexander, vigorously rejected suggestions that the agency was a rogue institution, trawling for information on ordinary citizens and leaders of America’s closest allies, without the knowledge of its Washington overseers.
Their testimony came amid mounting questions about how the NSA collects information overseas, with Republicans and Democrats calling for a congressional review, lawmakers introducing a bill that would curb its activities, and Obama poised to impose his own constraints, particularly on monitoring the leaders of friendly nations.
At the same time, current and former US intelligence officials say there is a growing sense of anger with the White House for what they see as attempts to pin the blame for the controversy squarely on them.
General Alexander said news media reports that the NSA had vacuumed up tens of millions of telephone calls in France, Spain and Italy were "completely false." That data, he said, is at least partly collected by the intelligence services of those countries and provided to the NSA.
Still, both he and Mr Clapper said that spying on foreign leaders - even those of allies - was a basic tenet of intelligence tradecraft and had gone on for decades. European countries, Clapper said, routinely seek to listen in on the conversations of US leaders.
“Some of this reminds me of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’ - ‘My God, there’s gambling going on here,’” Mr Clapper said, twisting the line from the movie uttered by a corrupt French official who feigns outrage at the very activity in which he avidly partakes.
Asked whether the White House knows about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering, including on foreign leaders, Mr Clapper said, “They can and do.” But, he added, “I have to say that that does not extend down to the level of detail. We’re talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements.”
The White House declined to discuss intelligence policies, pending the completion of a review of intelligence-gathering practices that will be completed in December. But a senior administration official noted that the vast majority of intelligence that made it into Mr Obama’s daily intelligence briefings focused on potential threats, from al-Qaeda plots to Iran’s nuclear program.
“These are front-burner, first-tier issues,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “He’s not getting many briefings on intelligence about Germany.”
Another senior administration official said that Mr Obama did not generally rely on intelligence reports to prepare for meetings or phone calls with Dr Merkel. “He knows her well, he speaks with her regularly, and our governments work together every day on a wide range of issues,” said this official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic concerns. “Because we talk so frequently, we know where they stand and they know where we stand on most issues.”
Mr Clapper and General Alexander got a warm reception from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, republican representative Mike Rogers, who defended the NSA's methods and said he had been adequately briefed about its activities. But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the outrage among US allies was clearly fuelling concern. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the fiercest defenders of US surveillance operations, said on Monday that she did "not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers." Ms Feinstein said her committee would be conducting a "major review" of the intelligence programmes.
Another strong defender of the NSA, republican speaker John Boehner, agreed that "there needs to be review, there ought to be review, and it ought to be thorough," he said. "We've got obligations to the American people to keep them safe. We've got obligations to our allies around the world." "But having said that, we've got to find the right balance here," he added. "We're imbalanced as we stand here."
An aide to Boehner said, “The speaker still believes our surveillance programs save lives, but the president needs to do a better job of managing and explaining them.”
On Tuesday, House Democrats and Republicans introduced a bill that would curb some of the NSA's practices, including the bulk collection of telephone data inside the United States. "The picture drawn is one of a surveillance system run amuck," said democrat John Conyers, a sponsor of the bill. "Our intelligence community has operated without proper congressional oversight or regard for Americans' privacy and civil liberties."
Even on the House Intelligence Committee, members sparred over what they had been told by the intelligence agencies about eavesdropping on foreign leaders. Democrat Adam Schiff, a senior member of the committee, said that he had first learned about the practice after the recent news media reports.
“Would you consider that a wiretap of a leader of an allied country would be a significant intelligence activity requiring a report to the intelligence committees?” Mr Schiff asked Mr Clapper. Mr Clapper said the agencies had “lived up to the letter and spirit of that requirement.”Mr Schiff disagreed, saying that the agencies had much work to do “to make sure we’re getting the information we need.” He said that disclosures about such eavesdropping could create significant “blowback.”
Mr Rogers disputed Mr Schiff’s claim, saying that Mr Schiff needed to take the time to educate himself about what the committee had been briefed on. “To make the case that somehow we are in the dark is mystifying to me,” Mr Rogers said. “It is disingenuous to imply that this committee did not have a full and complete understanding of activities of the intelligence community as was directed under the national intelligence priority framework to include sources and methods.”
Reuters/New York Times