BERLIN - German envoys are due to hold talks with US officials in Washington Wednesday on rebuilding a “basis of trust” after alleged US tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone in sweeping surveillance operations that have outraged Europe.
As spy claims ricocheted across the Atlantic in a row that has frazzled ties between US and European allies, two high-ranking Berlin officials will seek answers and fresh rules on intelligence cooperation, Merkel’s spokesman said.
Steffen Seibert told reporters the talks were aimed at clarifying the allegations and working out “a new basis of trust and new regulation for our cooperation in this area.” “We are in a process of intensive contacts with US partners both at the intelligence as well as the political level,” he said.
France, Italy and Spain have also protested after media reports, based on leaks from fugitive US analyst Edward Snowden, that Washington collected tens of millions of European telephone calls and online communications as part of anti-terror operations.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the snooping, if confirmed, was “inappropriate and unacceptable between partners and friends” after a report alleged that more than 60 million telephone calls in Spain were spied on by the US National Security Agency (NSA) in a month.
But on Tuesday, US espionage chiefs turned the tables on European allies in the spat over intercepted phone records, saying in many cases it was European agencies — not the NSA — that gathered and shared them with America.
And they dismissed as “completely false” allegations that American spy agencies had swept up vast amounts of communications data.
France responded coolly, describing as “unlikely” the allegations that European spy agencies shared phone call records with US intelligence.
‘Foreign nations spying on US’
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement that Obama and Merkel had recently agreed in a phone call “to intensify further the cooperation between US and German intelligence services”.
Merkel confronted Obama by phone last Wednesday over the alleged surveillance, which, according to German media, may have begun as early as 2002.
Merkel’s foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen and the secret service coordinator Guenter Heiss will take part in Wednesday’s talks at the White House.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and counter-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco would meet the Germans, Hayden said.
“This process of clearing up the facts will last some time still,” Seibert said, adding the heads of German foreign and domestic intelligence services would also travel to Washington in the coming days.
European lawmakers were already in the US capital this week to complain over America’s espionage activity against its allies.
In the latest of what have become near daily reports, Italian weekly magazine Panorama claimed US secret services allegedly eavesdropped on cardinals before the conclave in March to elect a new pope.
Clapper and General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, testified to Congress that the rampant European media coverage was based on a misreading of information provided by Snowden.
Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, backed up claims that the European media reports were wrong.
“This was not the United States collecting on France and Germany. This was France and Germany collecting. And it had nothing to do with their citizens, it had to do with collecting in NATO areas of war, like Afghanistan,” she said.
Alexander and Clapper told the hearing that foreign nations were also spying on US leaders.
“Do you believe that the allies have conducted or at any time, any type of espionage activity against the United States of America, our intelligence services, our leaders or otherwise?” said Mike Rogers, chairman of the House committee.
“Absolutely,” said Clapper, adding that spying on foreign leaders was at the heart of the international espionage game.
Asked to respond, Seibert referred to comments by the head of German foreign intelligence who told Bild newspaper last week his agency was not targeting the US government.
“Possible random collections through our technical systems are purged,” Gerhard Schindler was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, the European Commission said it was checking gifts and gadgets which host Russia gave to delegations at last month’s G20 summit to see if they pose a security risk.
A Kremlin spokesman dismissed the report as a red herring “to divert attention from the real problems between Washington and Europe”.
And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Athens he was bored by the US espionage row anyway. “As a whole, I am sure that everyone knew everything or at the very least guessed this,” he said.