BERLIN — Challenged by Chancellor Angela Merkel, of Germany, about U.S. intelligence programs that monitor foreigners’ communications, President Obama said Wednesday that German terrorist threats were among those foiled by such operations worldwide, a contention that Merkel seemed to confirm.
Their exchanges, in private at the start of his state visit and later at a joint news conference, preceded Obama’s speech to about 4,500 people at the Brandenburg Gate, near where the Berlin Wall once stood and where other U.S. presidents — including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — had paid tribute to the German-American alliance against outside threats.
“No wall can stand against the yearning of justice — the yearnings for freedom, the yearnings for peace — that burns in the human heart,” Obama said in his speech.
He used the address to propose that the United States and Russia further reduce their nuclear arsenals. Yet the speech at the historic site was offset by attention to revelations of the breadth of U.S. surveillance programs, which include both Prism, an effort to monitor foreign communications at U.S. Internet companies such as Google and Microsoft, and a vast database of domestic phone logs. The programs monitor the communications without individualized court orders. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, not just in the United States but in some cases here in Germany,” Obama said at the news conference. “So lives have been saved.”
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He did not provide details. But Merkel, who acknowledged Germany has received “very important information” from the U.S., cited the so-called Sauerland cell as an example of such anti-terrorism intelligence cooperation. In that case, four Islamic militants were sentenced to up to 12 years in jail in 2010 for plotting terrorist attacks against U.S. targets in Germany.
His nuclear-reduction proposal, meanwhile, drew a cool response. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered no support, saying in St. Petersburg: “We cannot allow the balance of the strategic deterrence system to be broken, or the effectiveness of our nuclear forces to be diminished.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia could not “indefinitely and bilaterally talk with the United States about cuts and restrictions on nuclear weapons in a situation where a whole number of other countries are expanding their nuclear and missile potentials.”
In the U.S., Senate conservatives have made it clear they would oppose any treaty to cut the nuclear arsenal below New START limits. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Obama’s proposal “misguided and dangerous.”
Material from The Associated Press and Tribune Washington Bureau
is included in this report.