President Obama assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday that the United States is not and will not tap her phone calls — but White House spokesman Jay Carney dodged questions about the possisbility of past spying.
Obama spoke to Merkel after the German government expressed outrage over possible spying, the latest sign that the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance programs are opening rifts with U.S. allies.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama told Merkel that the U.S. “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her phone calls.
He also said the U.S. government is “reviewing the way we gather intelligence” to better address privacy concerns.
But Carney didn’t clarify whether the NSA has ever monitored Merkel’s phone, and he sidestepped a question about whether the NSA may have collected the information inadvertently.
He said the two leaders agreed to “intensify further cooperation” on intelligence matters.
Merkel was clearly perturbed by the reports that her phone might have been monitored.
A spokesman for Merkel said the German government “has received information that the chancellor’s cellphone may be monitored by American intelligence,” something Merkel told Obama would be “completely unacceptable” if true.
Merkel is the latest U.S. ally to express outrage over NSA surveillance brought to light by Edward Snowden. And the revelations appear to be causing tangible damage to U.S. interests.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to the U.S. in September over reports of NSA spying and slammed the U.S. in a speech to the United Nations.
Mexico has warned the U.S. that surveillance of top officials could harm relations between the bordering nations.
And the European Parliament is now moving legislation that would restrict how Internet companies share user data with third parties, including government agencies.
U.S. technology companies have been lobbying against the legislation, which they say would impose burdensome new requirements on them, but the legislation has seen a surge of support following the NSA revelations.
Jim Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Snowden leaks have “absolutely” harmed U.S. relations with allies.
He argued that foreign leaders are not actually surprised that the NSA is spying on their governments, but he said they are forced to react due to public outrage.
“We’ve seen that the most powerful effect has been on European public opinion. The people who did this for a living knew what was up,” he said. “But for your average citizen or your average dimwitted European parliamentarian, this probably came as a shock.”
He argued that countries like France and Germany have their own powerful intelligence agencies conducting similar surveillance activities. But he said politicians up for reelection face particular pressure to lash out at the U.S. over reports of surveillance.
Lewis also claimed that columnist Glenn Greenwald and others who have control over the Snowden documents are strategically publishing them to maximize the damage to the U.S. He pointed to the timing of the revelations about NSA surveillance in France, which came as Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting Paris.
“The intent is to hurt U.S. interests,” Lewis said.
This story was posted at 2:11 p.m. and updated at 8:21 p.m.