BERLIN -- 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.”