Spying tensions take back seat in Obama-Merkel meeting

The National Security Agency isn’t hurting the Obama administration like it used to.

Just a year and a half ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was livid that the Obama administration had spied on her personal cellphone and snooped on the communications of millions of Germans.

“Spying among friends is never acceptable,” an exasperated Merkel said in October of 2013, after leaks from Edward Snowden threw the biggest wrench into the U.S.-German relationship in years.

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But those tensions are largely on the back burner now, more than a year later and in the face of new threats from Ukraine and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  

“There are still different assessments on individual issues there, but if we look at the sheer dimension of the terrorist threats, we are more than aware of the fact that we need to work together very closely,” Merkel said during a press conference in the White House on Monday.

In fact, those same programs that once posed such a headache for Obama’s relationship with Merkel now seem to be a benefit for the coalition of countries fighting Islamic extremism and pushing back on pro-Russian rebels’ incursions into Ukraine.

“The institutions of the United States of American have provided us and still continue to provide us with a lot of very important, very significant information that are also important to our security,” Merkel said, while noting that there are other avenues for discussing privacy concerns.  

“Combating terrorism was basically in the forefront today.”

The change in tone is a marked turnaround from the heightened tensions that stretched from late 2013 through last summer, when Berlin kicked out the CIA’s station chief in the German capital. In July, the White House took the rare step of dispatching White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to quell the transatlantic tension.

President Obama on Monday said that he understood concerns about the spying, but that he has tried to “systematically work through some of these issues to create greater transparency and to restore confidence not just for Germans but for our partners around the world.” For instance, the administration has placed new limits on the NSA’s ability to snoop on the communications of foreign leaders and granted additional protections for data it holds about foreigners.

“There are still going to be areas where we are going to have to work through these issues,” Obama added, given the increasing role that cyberspace is playing in national security.  

He hoped, however, that Germans would be willing to trust the U.S. slightly more when those issues arose.  

“Occasionally, I would like the German people to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst,” he said.

“If we have that fundamental underlying trust, there are going to be times where there’s disagreement ... but the underlying foundation for the relationship remains sound.”