NSA looms over Merkel-Obama visit

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the White House on Friday for the first time since news broke that President Obama’s spies had snooped on her phone.

The revelations created a furor in Germany and turned Merkel’s relationship with Obama into fodder for “Saturday Night Live,” which has repeatedly sent up the German leader.

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Merkel called the spying “completely unacceptable” and confronted Obama. The White House said carefully that it would not monitor and was not monitoring Merkel’s communications, but didn’t indicate whether it had spied on her phone in the past.

More than six months later, there’s little sign the fight is interfering with Obama and Merkel’s relationships.

The NSA is not expected to be a major part of Friday’s meeting, with the two leaders focused on how to deal with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to bubble to the surface, analysts say.

“I don’t think they can very easily just move on from this, but that doesn’t mean that cooperation on other dossiers is precluded,” said Jonathan Laurence, a political science professor at Boston College and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

As Obama tries to convince European leaders to support tougher and tougher actions against Russia, trans-Atlantic trust remains a key issue.

The U.S. and European Union unveiled new sanctions against Russia this week, and Merkel and Obama will likely discuss possible future actions, including the potential for sanctions on specific sectors of the Russian economy. Germany has close economic ties to Russia, which could pose problems for the unified front.

The need for cooperation between the U.S. and the European leader makes tensions over the NSA’s activities all the more relevant.

“It is very important for the administration to, No. 1, recognize that this is like a cancer metastasizing other aspects of the U.S.-German relationship,” said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday said he was “confident” that the disagreement around U.S. surveillance is “not related to our shared approach to dealing with the situation in Ukraine.”

In the months since the NSA news broke, Obama laid out a series of reforms that the administration hoped would quell some of the concerns about the surveillance programs, both at home and abroad.

Among those were calls for new protections for keeping foreigners’ data as well as the promise not to spy on leaders “of our close friends and allies.”

On Thursday, the administration unveiled a new “big data” report that included a recommendation on extending privacy rights of data holders to foreign citizens.

“The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures,” Obama said in his NSA speech earlier this year.

The problem with those types of moves, Conley said, is that it amounts to the U.S. saying: “Trust us; we won’t do this again.”

“Well that’s the problem,” she said. “There is no more trust.”

Germany has pushed for a “no-spy” agreement to formally put the relationship back on the right footing, but the Obama administration has declined that offer.

“There’s no country where we have a no-spy agreement,” Obama said in February.

More recently, Merkel has announced plans with French President François Hollande to build a new Internet network that bypasses the U.S., in order to skirt the government’s prying eyes.

The German government was also weighing whether or not allow NSA leaker Edward Snowden to come and testify in front of the country’s parliament this year, but officials blocked that effort on Thursday.

In the U.S., American tech firms have been some of the most vocal critics of the NSA’s activities, because their reputations abroad have suffered a serious blow.

Germans looking for concessions from the White House may find that those business groups are their best allies.

“As much as we might want the government to respond to civil liberties and privacy concerns, I think it’s more likely they’ll respond when it’s corporate American saying: ‘We need protection,’ ” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University.