BERLIN — In the recent German elections, Angela Merkel was swept back into the chancellor’s job with a campaign that focused on her as a “safe pair of hands.” To everyday Germans, the most common way to see those hands was in daily images of her with her cellphone, texting, making calls or just holding it.
So when allegations emerged this week that the United States had been monitoring her phone, it was unquestioningly personal. In the words of an editorial Thursday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, “An attack on her cellphone is an attack on her political heart.”
Europe erupted in fury Thursday over reports that U.S. intelligence had monitored her cellphone since 2009, with Germany taking the unusual step of summoning the U.S. ambassador to the Foreign Ministry.
Lack of trust
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In another departure from standard practice, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle switched to English in making an official statement after meeting with the U.S. ambassador, John Emerson. “We need the truth now,” he said.
Just beforehand, in German, he noted: “People who trust each other don’t listen to each other. Anybody who does it anyway really damages the friendship.”
Politicians in Germany and elsewhere in Europe were indignant, and some urged at least a temporary halt in talks on a new trans-Atlantic trade deal.
“For us, a limit has been reached,” said Martin Schulz, chairman of the European Parliament. Talks cannot be conducted, he said, when you suspect that the other side has spied on you in advance to know your position. He also cited his Parliament’s rejection late Wednesday of the SWIFT agreement on sharing banking data with the United States as an example of Europe’s growing resistance to U.S. demands for data.
Suspicions about Merkel’s cellphone apparently originated with documents released by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.
The intensifying diplomatic fallout has hurt America’s bonds with friendly nations and tarnished the image of the Obama administration.
Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the center-left Social Democrats in Germany, saw real damage for trans-Atlantic relations.
“I think the United States simply does not yet realize that they are doing more than just running a snooping scandal,” Gabriel said. “If they keep on like this, they are ruining the very fundament” of the Atlantic alliance, he added.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama was “obviously aware” that privacy was an especially sensitive issue in Germany, given the history of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force. Merkel grew up in East Germany.
“This is something that he knows from discussions with the chancellor, with whom he has a long and strong relationship, and he is certainly aware of her past and he’s aware of Germany’s past and East Germany’s past,” Carney said.
However, the uproar has spread, with Italy joining a now-sizable list of nations that are demanding to know exactly whom and what the United States has spied on, and complaining that confidences were shattered when the NSA reportedly swept up the communications of top leaders.
The Guardian newspaper, which has broken many stories about the NSA surveillance based on documents it obtained from Snowden, reported late Thursday that one of the documents described how U.S. officials had turned over hundreds of telephone numbers that then were used for surveillance purposes.
Handing over numbers
“The document notes that one unnamed U.S. official handed over 200 numbers, including those of 35 world leaders, none of whom is named,” The Guardian said. The numbers were immediately “tasked” for monitoring by the NSA, the news outlet said.
By Thursday evening, the burgeoning scandal had taken over a regularly scheduled European Council meeting in Brussels, where many of the 28 heads of state voiced dismay.
“Spying among friends is simply not done,” Merkel said before walking into what looked to be a stormy meeting.
“I told President Obama that during his visit in June, then again in July and yesterday during our phone conversation,” she said.
Others angrily denounced what they saw as U.S. misconduct. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he backed Merkel: “I will support her completely in her complaint and say that this is not acceptable.”
Finland’s Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen demanded “a guarantee that this will never happen again.”
NSA surveillance programs for Internet and cellphone communications have been the subject of bitter German commentary since they were first revealed in June, especially among residents of the former East Germany. Earlier reports had alleged that 500 million electronic communications from Germany had been captured and stored in NSA databanks.
Raising concerns about surveillance activities, European politicians have even warned in recent weeks about putting on hold a proposed trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
The German newspaper Die Zeit called Obama’s denial “halfhearted” and said it raised questions.
“Was Merkel’s mobile the target of NSA surveillance in the past?” the paper wrote. “It is time for Obama and the U.S. Congress to be ruthlessly transparent about the macabre practices of the NSA and restrain them strongly. They promised it months ago but until recently very little has happened. With each revelation trust is eroded further.”
But some took a more detached view.
Wolf-Dieter Lowerenz, 73, a retired lawyer from Berlin, said his generation had not forgotten America’s help after World War II. U.S. eavesdropping caused outrage, he suggested, because it had not been explained.
“They didn’t communicate what they were doing,” he said. “Had that happened, I can’t imagine that a normal person would have a problem with the spying.”
Bernard Squarcini, the former head of France’s secret services, told the French daily Le Figaro: “I’m bewildered by such worrying naiveté. You’d think the politicians don’t read the reports they’re sent. There shouldn’t be any surprise. The agencies know perfectly well that every country, even when they cooperate on anti-terrorism, spies on its allies. The Americans spy on us on the commercial and industrial level like we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our businesses.”