In the recent German elections, Angela Merkel was swept back into the chancellor’s job with a campaign that focused on her as a “safe pair of hands.” To everyday Germans, the most common way to see those hands was in daily images of her with her cellphone, texting, making calls or just holding it.
So when allegations emerged this week that the United States had been monitoring her phone, it was unquestioningly personal. In the words of an editorial Thursday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, “An attack on her cellphone is an attack on her political heart.”
New details emerged Thursday that suggested the United States had been monitoring Merkel’s cellphone use since 2009. The chancellor’s office demanded a “no spying agreement” between the nations, and the Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador for a dressing-down. There was little mention of the White House’s denial Wednesday that Merkel’s phone is currently being monitored, even as the Obama administration sought again Thursday to calm the anger.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was “obviously aware” that privacy was an especially sensitive issue in Germany, given the history of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force. Merkel grew up in East Germany.
“This is something that he knows from discussions with the chancellor, with whom he has a long and strong relationship, and he is certainly aware of her past and he’s aware of Germany’s past and East Germany’s past,” Carney said.
Meanwhile, the uproar over National Security Agency surveillance programs spread, with Italy joining a now-sizable list of nations that are demanding to know exactly whom and what the United States has spied on, and complaining that confidences were shattered when the NSA reportedly swept up the communications of top leaders.
The Guardian newspaper, which has broken many stories about the NSA surveillance based on documents it obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reported late Thursday that one of the documents described how U.S. officials had turned over hundreds of telephone numbers that then were used for surveillance purposes.
“The document notes that one unnamed U.S. official handed over 200 numbers, including those of 35 world leaders, none of whom is named,” The Guardian said. The numbers were immediately “tasked” for monitoring by the NSA, the news outlet said.
By Thursday evening, the burgeoning scandal had taken over a regularly scheduled European Council meeting in Brussels, where many of the 28 heads of state voiced dismay.
“Spying among friends is simply not done,” Merkel said before walking into what looked to be a stormy meeting. “I told President Obama that during his visit in June, then again in July and yesterday during our phone conversation.”
Others angrily denounced what they saw as U.S. misconduct. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the news “inconceivable and unacceptable.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he backed Merkel: “I will support her completely in her complaint and say that this is not acceptable.”
Finland’s Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen demanded “a guarantee that this will never happen again.”
The news broke hard in Germany, where Merkel and her phone affinity are a commonplace sight in newspapers and news shows. The website of the newspaper Bild ran a series of photos of Merkel with her phones through the years. Thomas Oppermann, a Social Democratic member of Parliament and the head of the parliamentary committee on intelligence, called the alleged monitoring of the chancellor’s phone an outrage.
“Who spies on the chancellor spies on the citizens,” he said.
“What terrorists did the NSA hope to find on the chancellor’s cellphone?” Hans-Christian Stroebele, another member of Parliament, asked during an appearance on ARD television.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told ARD that Washington and Berlin couldn’t return to business as usual until the scandal was sorted out.
More details emerged of how Merkel learned that her phone allegedly had been monitored, apparently for years, by the United States. German news media reported that Merkel’s “party phone number” had been found in Snowden’s leaked documents. By “party phone,” the news accounts meant the phone assigned to her by her political party, which is the phone she’s known to use as her command center.
Some Germans said it was about time that Merkel reacted strongly to word of the NSA program. Throughout the summer, many Germans had expressed dismay that Merkel appeared to give their powerful ally a pass, until her own communications allegedly were tapped. Internet news sites are filled with comments wondering why it wasn’t more of a priority for the chancellor.
“Merkel is embarrassingly late with her reaction,” Berlin Internet privacy activist Anke Domscheit-Berg said. “In the past few months, Chancellor Merkel did very little to make the U.S. government answer all those questions that should have had highest political priority. Now she gets a taste of what it feels like when foreign secret services spy on all your communication.”
The German allegations came the same week as similar charges from France and Mexico and fast on the heels of angry allegations out of Brazil.
The seed of this anger is the broad-based surveillance the NSA is charged with, allegedly looking through billions of electronic communications. The French allegations charge that the NSA looked at 70 million communications in a single month, an accusation that U.S. intelligence officials have denied.
NSA surveillance programs for Internet and cellphone communications have been the subject of bitter German commentary since they were first revealed in June, especially among residents of the former East Germany, who are only two decades removed from the tyranny of the Stasi. Earlier reports had alleged that 500 million electronic communications from Germany had been captured and stored in NSA databanks.
European politicians have been getting louder in recent weeks about how without full disclosure and ways to ensure that surveillance activities have ceased, a proposed trade agreement between the United States and the European Union is, at best, on hold.
The German newspaper Die Zeit called Obama’s denial “halfhearted” and said it raised questions.
“Was Merkel’s mobile the target of NSA surveillance in the past?” the paper wrote. “It is time for Obama and the U.S. Congress to be ruthlessly transparent about the macabre practices of the NSA and restrain them strongly. They promised it months ago, but until recently very little has happened. With each revelation trust is eroded further.”