Obama looks to ease Germany's spying fears

President Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday for the first time since allegations of U.S. spying, as the White House looked to repair a deepening diplomatic rift between Washington and Berlin.

The White House only said that Obama and Merkel “exchanged views on U.S.-German intelligence cooperation,” and said Obama pledged to “remain in close communication on ways to improve cooperation going forward.”

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It was the first conversation between the leaders since July 3, a day before German officials arrested an intelligence officer who admitted to selling secrets to the United States. A subsequent investigation revealed the CIA had also recruited a defense ministry employee to spy, according to German officials.

In retaliation, Germany has demanded that the CIA station chief in Berlin leave the country. Merkel has publicly expressed outrage over the flap, but said she did not believe Washington would stop spying on her country.

"I think it's not that easy to convince the Americans ... to completely change the way their intelligence services work,” Merkel said in an interview with ZDF translated by The Associated Press.

On Friday, Bloomberg reported that the Obama administration had offered Germany deal similar to the one the United States has with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom that would have limited U.S. intelligence activities within the country. The offer was apparently a last-ditch bid to prevent the expulsion of the CIA station chief.

But Germany reportedly turned down the deal because it would have required a greater investment in its intelligence services.

The White House has largely refrained from commenting publicly on efforts to calm the waters, though press secretary Josh Earnest appeared to indicate the U.S. believed the alleged spying between the allies was par for the course in comments to reporters on Friday.

“Allies with sophisticated intelligence agencies like the United States and Germany understand with some degree of detail exactly what those intelligence relationships and activities entail,” Earnest said. “Any differences that we have are most effectively resolved through established private channels, not through the media. These private channels include regular discussions between intelligence officials, diplomatic officials, and national security officials from those two countries. So pursuing that dialogue through those channels is exactly what we’re doing.”

The incident has threatened to further strain the relationship with Merkel, who expressed outrage after documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed her personal cellphone had been targeted for monitoring.

While most attention will likely focus on the conversation about U.S. intelligence activities, the call also came the day before European leaders were set to meet in Brussels to discuss implementing new sanctions on Ukraine. The U.S. and European leaders have accused Moscow of providing pro-Russian separatists battling government forces in Ukraine with heavy artillery and other support.

According to the White House, Merkel and Obama agreed that Russia had not taken a series of “required actions” that would de-escalate the situation there.

“The President and the Chancellor reaffirmed their commitment to work together with other allies to ensure that Europe and the United States remain closely coordinated on measures to impose costs on Russia, as necessary, as well as to continue to support Ukraine’s long-term stability and prosperity,” the White House said.

Earlier Tuesday, Earnest said the U.S. had “been working in very close coordination with our allies to impose costs on Russia for their destabilizing actions along the border with Ukraine.”

“Suffice it to say that conversations that are actively being held among the United States and our allies about the next step. And each day that goes by that Russia doesn’t take the kind of very specific steps that I’ve laid out here many times, Russia is at greater risk of facing the kinds of economic costs that have been imposed on them in the past,” Earnest said.

Additionally, the leaders discussed negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to brief Obama later this week on the progress of the talks and whether to offer an extension of the sanctions relief that brought Tehran to the negotiating table.

Obama and Merkel “reviewed the progress that has been made in the negotiations, while noting that important gaps still remain,” the White House said. 

Updated at 11 p.m.