BERLIN: An outraged Germany summoned the United States ambassador for the first time in living memory Thursday over suspicions Washington bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, in the worst spat between the close allies in a decade.
Merkel, at a summit of European leaders in Brussels, said the incident had shattered German trust in the U.S. “It’s not just about me but about every German citizen,” she said. “Spying among friends is not at all acceptable.”
The White House did not deny the bugging, saying only it would not happen in future. President Barack Obama spoke with Merkel to assure her she was not now under surveillance.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle suggested Washington may have deceived Berlin with assurances about the scope of its covert spying program, which was revealed earlier this year by fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
“In the summer, we received explanations and assurances,” the German minister said. “Whether we can trust these explanations and assurances, that must be examined again.”
He took the unusual step of making part of his statement in English – to make the message to Washington “quite clear.”
Some politicians suggested the row could disrupt European Union negotiations with the United States on a free trade pact, though others played down that possibility.
State surveillance is a highly sensitive subject in a country haunted by memories of eavesdropping by the dreaded Stasi secret police in East Germany, where Merkel grew up.
The news shocked many Germans, coming just four months after Obama visited Merkel in Berlin on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Obama then praised Germany as one of Washington’s closest partners.
Some Germans said they viewed such eavesdropping as a betrayal by the country that did most to defend democratic West Germany from Soviet-backed communism during the Cold War.
“This is not how you should treat your partners,” Stephanie Hilebrand said, as she passed the Brandenburg Gate,once a forlorn landmark in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. “We’re not terrorists. Nor is our chancellor.”Evidence of the spying was uncovered by German weekly Der Spiegel, which according to officials, obtained an NSA document with Merkel’s mobile phone number on it and showed it to her office, which had it vetted by German intelligence.
They concluded that the document was credible, leading Merkel to confront Obama about it in a phone call Wednesday.
The response did not reassure the Germans. All the White House would say is that it “is not monitoring and will not monitor” Merkel’s communications. It did not deny that the chancellor may have been spied on in the past.
“We are not going to comment publicly on every specified alleged intelligence activity,” a White House spokesman said.
Merkel said: “We need to have trust in our allies and partners and this trust must now be established once again.”
The United States monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders according to classified documents leaked by fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Britain’s Guardian newspaper said Thursday.
Phone numbers were passed on to the NSA by an official in another government department, according to the documents, the Guardian said on its website.
It added that staff in the White House, State Department and the Pentagon were urged to share the contact details of foreign politicians.
German media reports said domestic security sources believed the embassy had played a role in the monitoring of Merkel’s phone, which is said to have taken place over a period of years. No one at the embassy was available to comment.
The German Foreign Ministry was unable to tell Reuters the last time a U.S. ambassador was summoned to speak with the German foreign minister.
“There are no statistics on this,” a spokeswoman said.
“We definitely cannot recall summoning this partner in the recent or medium-term past,” she added.
Not since Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has the tension between Europe’s leading economic power and Washington been so high.