BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained to President Obama on Wednesday after learning that U.S. intelligence may have targeted her cellphone, saying that would be “a serious breach of trust” if true.
The White House denied that the U.S. was listening in on Merkel's phone calls now.
“The president assured the chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “The United States greatly values our close cooperation with Germany on a broad range of shared security challenges.”
However, Carney did not specifically say that the U.S. had never monitored or obtained Merkel's communications.
The German government said it responded after receiving “information that the chancellor's cellphone may be monitored” by U.S. intelligence. It wouldn't elaborate, but German news magazine Der Spiegel, which has published material from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, said its research triggered the response.
Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement that the chancellor made it clear to Obama in a phone call that “she views such practices, if the indications are confirmed … as completely unacceptable.”
Merkel said that among close partners such as Germany and the U.S., “there must not be such surveillance of a head of government's communication,” Seibert added. “That would be a serious breach of trust. Such practices must be stopped immediately.”
Carney said the U.S. was examining Germany's concerns as part of a review of how the U.S. gathers intelligence.
U.S. allies knew that the Americans were spying on them, but they had no idea how much.
As details of NSA spying programs have become public, citizens, activists and politicians in countries from Latin America to Europe have lined up to express shock and outrage at the scope of Washington's spying.
Merkel has previously raised concerns about electronic eavesdropping, when Obama visited Germany in June; has demanded answers from the U.S. government; and backed calls for greater European data protection. Wednesday's statement, however, was much more sharply worded and appeared to reflect frustration over the answers provided so far by the U.S. government.
Merkel called for U.S. authorities to clarify the extent of surveillance in Germany and to provide answers to “questions that the German government asked months ago,” Seibert said.
Overseas politicians are also using the threat to their citizens' privacy to drum up their numbers at the polls — or to distract attention from their own domestic problems. Some have downplayed the matter to keep good relations with Washington.
After a Paris newspaper reported that the NSA had collected 70.3 million French telephone records in a 30-day period, the French government called the U.S. ambassador in for an explanation and put the issue of personal data protection on the agenda of the European Union summit that opens Thursday.
“Why are these practices, as they're reported ... unacceptable? First because they are taking place between partners, between allies, and then because they clearly are an affront to private life,” Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French government spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
But the official French position — that friendly nations should not spy on each another — can't be taken literally, a former French foreign minister said.
"The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us," Bernard Kouchner said in a radio interview. "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous."
In Germany, opposition politicians, the media and privacy activists have been vocal in their outrage over the U.S. eavesdropping. Until now, Merkel had worked hard to contain the damage to U.S.-German relations and refrained from saying anything bad about the Americans.
Merkel has said previously that her country was “dependent” on cooperation with the American spy agencies — crediting an American tip as the reason that security services foiled a terrorist plot in 2007 that targeted U.S. soldiers and citizens in Germany.
In Italy, major newspapers reported that a parliamentary committee was told that the U.S. had intercepted phone calls, emails and text messages of Italians. Prime Minister Enrico Letta raised the topic of spying during a visit Wednesday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry. A senior State Department official said Kerry made it clear that the Obama administration's goal was to strike the right balance between security needs and privacy expectations.