Did Obama Lie to Merkel in Berlin?

As I noted here and the NYT lays out in more detail, Obama spoke with Angela Merkel about US spying in Germany in June when he was in Berlin.

The first disclosures from Der Spiegel in June almost soured the long-planned meeting between Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel in her capital, which the president visited as a candidate in 2008, delivering a speech before an estimated 200,000 people.

In June, there were far fewer, carefully screened and invited Germans and Americans on hand to hear Mr. Obama at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of Berlin’s unity and freedom since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Shortly beforehand, Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel stood side by side in her chancellery, fielding questions about American surveillance of foreigners’ phone and e-mail traffic. Pressed personally by Ms. Merkel, the president said that terrorist threats in Germany were among those foiled by intelligence operations around the world, and Ms. Merkel concurred.

A month later, Merkel quipped that she had not been wiretapped.

In July, Ms. Merkel joked with television interviewers asking about the situation, “I know of no case where I was listened to.”

Yet in the last few days, Merkel has discovered this is not true. The White House’s non-denial — “The President assured the Chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel” — makes it fairly clear the United States was monitoring her communications.

All of which raises the stakes for whatever explanation Obama offered in June.

The NSA’s strategy since Edward Snowden first leaked has been to emphasize (as Obama seems to have with Merkel) its use for counterterrorism. It has been increasingly clear NSA badly wants to hide the sheer scale of its spying — that it could effectively be taking everything. But even from the earliest leaks, it has been clear the US was spying on diplomats, particularly from the EU. So it should not be surprising that it is also spying on Merkel.

That said, it sounds like this tap, of Merkel’s private cell phone (which presumably had some kind of security, particularly given the involvement of Germany’s security services to assess whether it had been tapped), was probably a more deliberate tap than the broader spying NSA conducts, probably a TAO exploit. Not something that happens incidentally.

I would imagine Merkel would be pissed in any case, and gravely concerned about the topics of interest. (I’m acutely interested, for example, whether the US has shared any information about the plight of the Euro with the banks that have largely devastated the Euro.)

But there’s also the question of whether Obama gave Merkel assurances that have now turned out to be false.

Note, this article on how leaks are making it harder for the US to tout openness and human rights while secretly doing the opposite is closely related–it’s well worth your read.

29 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    it puzzles me that obama keeps spending “external” political capital in order to obtain or retain “internal” (within the administration/executive) capital.

    from my inexperienced-in-high-level-politics viewpoint, this is a fools game.

    it’s as if nothing related to other nations or to human rights/openness emotions, e.g., spying, drones, assassination teams, manning, assange, snowden, guantanamo, muslim-americans, has any resonance with the man at all.

    but keeping the cia, the doj/fbi, the nsa well-nurtured, well-defended, and well-financed – now that’s something that a prez can get enthused about.

    the lizzzzardly cold-bloodedness of this approach to presidential power is
    exceedingly unseemly and unappealing in an american president (not named g.w. bush).

  2. RexFlex says:

    I’m constantly baffled by the amount of money and sophistication our fine republic keeps buying into to infiltrate secret boundaries of sovereign nations for whatever positive gain, accountability and efficacy set aside, but somehow when we attempt to administer civil health care services we fail miserably. Isn’t this contradiction blaring beyond? WTF?

  3. JohnT says:

    Yet in the last few days, Merkel has discovered this is not true. The White House’s non-denial — “The President assured the Chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel” — makes it fairly clear the United States was monitoring her communications.

    Exactly. The key words word missing are “has not” or “have not”

  4. scribe says:

    EW, I think you’re underestimating the level of freak-out the NSA story is causing in Germany. I know the NYT is. They’re all “heh, heh, boys will be boys” about it. The Germans are massively pissed as are the rest of the Europeans.

    I’m writing this comment as I flip back and forth between this site on one tab and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) on the other, reading the latter and coming back to comment. The SZ is out of Munich and more of an SPD paper and less of a CDU/CSU

    The lead story on the SZ as I write this is titled “Merkel’s handy was not cleared/permitted for use by the IT-security services”. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/digital/nsa-abhoeraffaere-merkels-handy-war-nicht-von-it-sicherheitsbehoerde-zugelassen-1.1802816 (NB, the German usage “handy” is noun for “cell phone”, just like the Brits like to call it a “mobile”. “IT” is “IT”)

    The lede of that story is that “Chancellor Merkel’s handy, which was reportedly tapped by the NSA, was not cleared for her workplace use. A spokesperson for the Federal Office of Information Security (BSI) said in response to questions from the SZ that the mobile phone had not been upgraded by the BSI to be eavesdropping-proof.”

    This story also indicates Merkel had access to and used more than one handy and links to a story in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ – roughly their WSJ) which indicates the target of the NSA was a CDU/CSU-supplied/affiated phone. (Presumably Germany, like us, requires political business to be done on one phone and government business on others.) In other words, this was political intelligence. The story continues, indicating she preferred to use an old Nokia – one she was comfortable with b/c she doesn’t like screwing around learning new tech.

    The story continues, indicating the BSI is a responsible for information security in government and setting rules for phone use, one of which is that private phones cannot be used for government business. Of course, the story notes, exceptions to these rules can be made. The story concludes, telling that BSI came in for criticism after previous Snowden revelations showed the BSI is considered a “key partner” of the NSA.

    The SZ’s second story is also on the topic, with the headline “Surveillance among friends just doesn’t go.” http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/ausspaehung-von-merkels-handy-eu-parlamentspraesident-schulz-will-gespraeche-mit-usa-unterbrechen-1.1802957 That’s pretty much a quote from Merkel, though her tone was harsher than my mere translation would show. This article is more of a compilation of short notes around the central topic, burying behind Merkel’s reaction to her phone being tapped the bigger subject: the President of the EU parliament wants to break off the free trade talks with the US, over the eavesdropping.

    But in this second article the SZ notes that Merkel, in her call to Obama, called this latest episode a “grave breach of trust and confidence.”

    And, it appears, during a coming EU summit, the individual heads of state will confer on what to do about the NSA spying – “the call for political consequences is growing ever louder.”

    And then there are three more articles – they’ve knocked everything except the next World Cup out of the paper.

    In one of them, they note that the Chancellor’s most important colleague is her handy.

    Any question why Obama had to give up his blackberry when he was intitally elected?

  5. Nigel says:

    That said, it sounds like this tap, of Merkel’s private cell phone (which presumably had some kind of security, particularly given the involvement of Germany’s security services to assess whether it had been tapped), was probably a more deliberate tap than the broader spying NSA conducts, probably a TAO exploit…

    Actually it’s more likely that Merkel, who is renowned for conducting a huge amount of business on her mobile, just got pissed off with using encryption (it’s a PITA), and gave up doing so, rendering her conversations and texts open to interception.

    Still, I’m delighted this happened, as it’s usually only when politicians are directly affected that they give a damn.

  6. pdaly says:

    So then Merkel’s conversations are still being intercepted unless the US/NSA has a way to avoid intercepting specific cell phones. Fat chance NSA would willingly avoid interception, however.

  7. Peterr says:

    @orionATL: Very very seriously.

    From Der Speigel’s English site:

    Merkel’s spokesman confirmed that she placed an angry call Wednesday night to United States President Barack Obama to discuss the suspicions, which arose from an inquiry by SPIEGEL.

    German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle took the unusual step Thursday morning of summoning the US ambassador, John B. Emerson, who is set to meet with the minister in the afternoon. A source at the Foreign Ministry told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Thursday that Westerwelle will meet with the ambassador “in person.”

    Sharp criticism also came from German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. “If what we are now hearing is true, that would be really bad,” he told broadcaster ARD. “The Americans are and remain our closest friends, but this is completely unacceptable.” De Maizière went on to say that he had assumed for years his own phone had been tapped. “However, I did not expect the Americans,” he added. Asked about possible effects on US-German and US-European relations, de Maizière said: “We can’t simply return to business as usual. There are allegations in France, too.” Diplomatic relations between France and the US have been strained following reports that millions of French calls had been monitored by US intelligence agencies.

    ‘Our Fears Have Been Confirmed’

    “The allegation shows once again that our fears have been confirmed,” said Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the Parliamentary Control Panel, which is responsible for monitoring Germany’s federal intelligence services. “The NSA’s monitoring activities have gotten completely out of hand and evidently take place beyond all democratic controls,” continued the center-left Social Democrat, who called an emergency meeting of the Control Panel for 2 p.m. on Thursday.

    German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has called for Merkel’s government to suspend the SWIFT deal between the EU and US, which governs the transfer of some bank data from the EU to anti-terror authorities in the United States. “The new suspicion exceeds all bounds. The NSA affair is not over,” she said, calling for EU bodies to “decide quickly” on the matter. . . .

    In separate article, they also say this:

    Unlike Carney’s explanation, the one offered by Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert sounded much less restrained. What’s more, these are the toughest statements heard yet from Merkel on the issue of US spying.

    Seibert said: “The federal chancellor spoke with President Obama today by telephone. She made it clear that, if the indications prove to be correct, she unequivocally disapproves of such practices, and considers them totally unacceptable. Among friends and partners, like the Federal Republic of Germany and the US have been for decades, such surveillance of communication of heads of government should not take place. This would be a grave breach of trust. Such practices must immediately be put to a stop.”

    Merkel has clearly gone to the limits of what can be called diplomatic between friends with phrases such as “unequivocally disapprove,” “totally unacceptable,” and a “grave breach of trust.” Naturally, everything preceded by the word “if.” All in all, it doesn’t really sound like Merkel was reassured by her conversation with Obama. According to the British Daily Telegraph, Merkel’s reaction is “the most direct confrontation with a world leader since Edward Snowden began leaking details of the US’s global surveillance network.”

    As anyone who’s watched junior high kids interacting can tell you, pushing your friends to the limits of acceptable behavior is no way to treat old friends, and makes the prospect of gaining new friends much more difficult.

  8. scribe says:

    You gotta keep in mind that the SZ articles I read and summarized (with a few direct translations) for you, when it came to Merkel’s call to Obama, the verb they used to describe her side of the discussion was “klagen”. That’s the same verb (root form) as in “suing” or “lodging criminal charges”. So, this was no friendly conversation. This was an angry one.

    Now, SZ has a new, exclusive, article up on its site. The gist of it is that the German government is charging the Americans are running a signals intelligence operation out of its Berlin embassy: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/ausspaehung-von-merkels-handy-spionageverdacht-gegen-us-botschaft-1.1803260 “Espionage charges against US embassy.”

    the lede paragraph: “Was the eavesdropping attack against Chancellor Merkel’s handy directed from Berlin? An American special unit is believed to have operated out of the diplomatic mission in the capitol. These charges arise out of the documents released by the former NSA employee Snowden, and nothing in an initial inspection can vitiate their power.”
    “The reported eavesdropping attack on Chancellor Merkel was probably run out of hte US embassy in Berlin. This charge is supported, as the SZ discovered, by documents released by the American whistleblower Snowden. The eavesdropping action is believed to have been run by a US organization called the “Special Collection Service”* (SCS). The handy number of the GErman head of government is believed to reside on a pertinent/enclosed list (of telephone numbers) [belonging to] the NSA – an organization belonging to the US military. It cannot be determined from the documents, with which the German magazine Spiegel confronted the government at the end of last week, what the time period was when Merkel was eavesdropped upon.”

    Later in the article: “The SZ’s documents have been extensively and intensively reviewed by German services and nothing has been found to vitiate their power or the charges (SZ makes).”
    “The SCS is believed to be tasked by both the NSA and CIA, the US’ external intelligence agency. They operate worldwide from US embassies and consulates, most of the time from ‘within the walls’ [of the US facility]. Only rarely are they allowed to operate ‘outside’ by the foreign-to-US country. There was no such permission from the Germans.”

    The article continues, stating that the Germans are going to go over everything said by or re NSA to the Germans, going back to the Schroeder government. They note that Obama’s statement about “we aren’t and won’t eavesdrop on Merkel” says nothing about the past.

    And the leader of the SPD is (again) calling for the EU free trade talks with the Americans to be stoppedm that it’s not worthwhile to do that while European citizens’ civil rights and privacy are routinely invaded by the Americans.

    *[NB: Now, there’s a name we haven’t heard before: “Special Collection Service”. I think a textual examination of the name itself indicates these were the geeks, burglars and thugs tasked with collecting information from “special” targets. Like … heads of friendly foreign governments.]

  9. orionATL says:


    “special collection service”, eh.

    somehow it reminds me of garrison keillor’s ‘mon back garbage collection service:

    ” ‘mon back, ‘mon back, ‘mon back [craaassh] ” –

    damn germans, why do they put their garages where they can get hit.

  10. bevin says:

    “The reported eavesdropping attack on Chancellor Merkel was probably run out of the US embassy in Berlin.”
    Or maybe from one of those almost seventy year old bases from occupation days. Choose your poison.

  11. lysias says:

    From Wikipedia: The Special Collection Service (SCS) is a highly classified joint U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-National Security Agency program charged with inserting eavesdropping equipment in difficult-to-reach places, such a foreign embassies, communications centers, and foreign government installations. Established in the late 1970s and headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland, the SCS has been described as the United States’ “Mission Impossible force”. The SCS has been involved in operations ranging from the Cold War to the Global War on Terrorism.

  12. scribe says:

    @bevin: Different rules govern embassies – which are sovereign territory of the country sending the ambassador and therefore inviolable – and US military bases – which are governed under a SOFA and various other agreements and are not inviolable. Occupation ended in 1949 except for Berlin, where it ended in 1990-91 as a part of reunification.

    Basically, if the Germans were to send a Polizist (cop) into the Embassy or consulate to arrest someone there, it’s the same as though they sent an army to invade the USofA. Likewise, they could demand the US turn over someone inside the Embassy and the US cold tell them to pound sand. OTOH, they could demand the US produce someone who jumped the wall into a military base and the US would comply.

  13. scribe says:

    @lysias: Between the geeks and the operators – “burglars and thugs” in my comment above – they must have interesting office Christmas parties.

  14. PJ Evans says:

    ‘klagen’ is also ‘complain’, if I remember correctly.
    Why should other countries trust what the US says about anything? We’ve lied so much in the last twelve years that even people who live here don’t believe the government.

  15. C says:

    @lysias: I have the same question.

    Given the size scope and relative free reign of the IC you have to wonder how much they are really managed. They have clearly shown their willingness to lie to congress even, it seems, in closed door sessions where they are all sworn in. What is to stop them from lying to, or not bothering to inform, the president.

    One of the great lines from the Top Secret America piece in the post that still haunts me is the point at which one senior member of the DOD comments “Why the hell can’t I know what the program does, I pay for it!” this in response to being told that what is happening in one group is so double super secret that noone outside the group can know what they do even their nominal “bosses”.

    Given how unweildy the ICs have become, how flush with cash, contracts and new levels of classification, and given Obama’s own disinterest in management, can we assume he really does know what is happening? Can we assume that Clapper even knows? Or are these groups just acting out of control without bothering to inform or be guided by real policy goals?

  16. C says:

    @C: It is also worthwhile to ask about the dates on these. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that much of this took place in the run-up to some big prior negotiations and/or under the previous administration meaning that Obama is stuck holding a bag he never filled.

  17. GKJames says:

    It’s been an interesting dilemma for Merkel. In principle, she agrees with dragnets, persuaded that it’s useful in the “war on terror.” Her own security service does much the same, and works closely with the US national security apparatus. As others have pointed out, it’s been only with the revelation that her personal conversations were tapped that she seemed to have, at last, some visceral reaction.

  18. orionATL says:


    this comment i take to mean that whatever merkel does is for show in domestic politics.

    she as leader has no problem in principle with the nsa’s (or german equivalent’s) spying on anyone, leaders included.

    well, i personally believe

    – this is not the only way governments can conduct themselves

    – spying on others is not significantly revelatory, but IS likely to lead to trivial, error-prone analyses,

    – spying on others is extraordinarily destructive of chances/opportunities for negotiation and mutual co-operation.

    – the immediately above, relatedly somewhat differently: spying on would be “friends” is immensely destructive of co-operation because it is such an enormous violation of the basic human emotional principle of trusting the “other”. in short, spying takes us backwards tens of thousands of years to the alarm of unexpected, unknown human figures on the horizon of our village.

  19. emptywheel says:

    @scribe: Thanks. The political phone bit is quite interesting.

    We saw in WikiLeaks our diplomats gaming how the very political parties would affect GErman capitulation to our demands (ironically, one of these was on surveillance, SWIFT). So of course they want to know how Merkel’s coalition works together and her chances for reelect.

  20. GKJames says:

    @orionATL: As with most leaders in democratic countries, her primary concern is with her domestic audience. (It would be interesting, by the way, to speculate whether the disclosure, had it come sooner, would have had a material impact on her political fortunes in the recent election.) Her reported anger with Washington is characterized in Germany as a mother’s disappointment with a wayward son. And while some in the political and media establishments might see it differently, there’s every indication that there will be zero tangible blow-back for Washington.

  21. Basilm says:

    The White House was actually asked whether Merkel is angry with Obama, and complained to her staff that Obama lied to her when he said the NSA doesn’t record her calls.

    “No, she absolutely did not complain,” said the spokesperson. “We have the transcripts of all her calls right here so I can prove it.”

  22. E. A. Costa says:

    In cases like this what mathematicians and logicians call functors are useful. The fill-in-the-blank form is an example: “Is Obama lying about ___?”. Fill in the blank as you choose. The statement is almost always true. In cases like this it is easier to ask the reverse:”Is Obama telling the truth about ___?”. As with a stopped clock, it may happen, say, twice a day. Merely by the way, the same holds for Clinton, Bush, most politicians, most lawyers, and so forth.

  23. Eileen K. says:

    @lysias: Barry Soetoro, aka Obama, of course, lied to Angela Merkel in Berlin on his last visit; he’s a serial liar; he’s also lied to the American people since 21 January, 2008, his first day in office.

  24. ess emm says:

    Stewart Baker in the Times says

    That’s just life and international politics.

    You’re going to get lied to Merkel, Hollande, Rousseff, and you other vassals. Get used to it.

    Baker also makes the astonishing claim at Volokh that German opposition at the UN to the invasion of Iraq would give the USG reason to fear that Germany might withhold spare parts or cut a deal with Saddam. What paranoid world does he live in? Same neighborhood as Bolton?

Comments are closed.