German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top foreign affairs and intelligence advisers were due to quiz officials in Washington yesterday over the activities of US spies in Germany, including allegations they tapped Merkel’s phone.
The visit is one of a series of trips by high-ranking German and EU officials to the US this week after revelations of the scale of the surveillance triggered outrage and shattered European trust in Washington.
Merkel wants the US 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 [Wednesday],” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said. “As you see, we are in a process of intense contact with our US 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.”
The White House did not deny reports that the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored Merkel’s phone, but said no such surveillance was taking place now.
Yesterday’s visit comes a day after an EU team met the head of the NSA, Army General Keith Alexander, and US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Later this week, the heads of Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies are also due to travel to Washington.
EU lawmaker Elmar Brok, a German national, told German daily Bild that his meeting with US officials produced no breakthroughs, but did generate good signals.
“Our talks showed that the Americans recognize the immense political damage caused by this affair and are open to more transparency,” Brok said.
The visit came a day after espionage chiefs turned the tables on the US’ European allies in the transatlantic spat, saying in many cases it was European agencies — not the NSA — that gathered data and shared it with the US.
They dismissed as “completely false” allegations that US spy agencies had swept up data on millions of phone calls and said European newspapers that had made those claims did not understand the data they were using to make the allegations.
The assertion came as a senior official said US President Barack Obama was considering banning US spies from tapping the phones of allied leaders.
Alexander and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that the reports were based on a misunderstanding of information passed to European newspapers.
“The assertions by reporters in France, Spain, Italy that NSA collected tens of millions of phone calls are completely false,” Alexander told the US House Committee on Intelligence. “To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens.”
Hours earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that the electronic spying was carried out by the intelligence agencies of France and Spain outside their own borders, and sometimes in war zones, and then passed onto the NSA.
The claims, if true, could embarrass European governments, which have vehemently protested to the US about alleged overreaching and infringements of the privacy of their citizens by the NSA.
Feinstein backed up claims that the European media reports were wrong.
“This was not the United States collecting on France and Germany. This was France and Germany collecting and it had nothing to do with their citizens, it had to do with collecting in NATO areas of war, like Afghanistan,” she said.