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Obama reassures Merkel

January 19, 2014

President Barack Obama has told Germany's ZDF public television that US intelligence services will continue to spy on foreign governments, but he would not let such work damage relations with Germany.

Obama im Interview mit ZDF
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Obama to rein in surveillance

In a rare interview on German television, Obama on Saturday sought to mend ties with Germany frayed last year by media reports that the US had spied on European Union citizens and bugged the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I don't need and I don't want to harm that relationship by a surveillance mechanism that somehow would impede the kind of communication and trust that we have," Obama told ZDF's main newscast, Heute-Journal.

"And so what I can say is: as long as I'm president of the United States, the chancellor of Germany will not have to worry about this," he added

In a major speech on Friday, Obama had pledged intelligence-gathering reform and that the NSA would not routinely spy on leaders of America's closest allies.

'No reason to wiretap'

Obama told ZDF interviewer Claus Kleber (pictured above) that he and Chancellor Merkel "may not always be of the same opinion on issues of foreign policy, but that is no reason to wiretap."

The US, however, needed intelligence capabilities that "went beyond the abilities of many other states" to find out what "goes on" in peoples' minds to underpin US "diplomatic and political goals," Obama said.

"There is no point in having an intelligence service if you are restricted to the things that you can read in the New York Times or Der Spiegel [German weekly news magazine].

Germany pushing for no-spy accord

Alarm has been widespread in Germany since the disclosures last June - via the former US security contractor Edward Snowden - that the US National Security Agency (NSA) carried out massive electronic eavesdropping of many countries.

Last October, Merkel accused the United States of an unacceptable breach of trust over the phone tapping. Berlin has since been pushing for a sweeping "no-spy" agreement with Washington. Last week, Obama invited Merkel to visit Washington in the coming months.

'Fresh impulse'

A senior politician among Merkel's conservatives, Volker Kauder, told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag that Obama's intended intelligence service reforms could rejuvenate months of inconclusive talks in which Germany has pressed Washington for a "no-spy" deal.

Obama's speech of Friday had possibly injected a fresh impulse into those talks, Kauder said.

It was self-evident, Kauder added, that the United States would continue to use its surveillance methods to detect terrorist risks. This was also "in our interest as long as German law is upheld on German soil," Kauder said.

Talks fragile

One of Germany's leading newspapers, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, had reported on Wednesday that those talks were close to collapse, claiming that US officials had refused to promise to halt spying on German politicians.

Media allegations centered on the NSA resulted in deep disquiet in Germany in recent months. That was due in part to sensitivity over mass state spying on citizens by the Stasi secret police in the former communist East Germany.

Greens party lawmaker Hans-Christian Stroebele, who visited Snowden in Moscow in October, said earlier this week: "We haven't made any progress because the government has been far too timid in demanding answers from the United States."

Snowden, who living in temporary asylum in Russia, is wanted by US authorities on espionage charges.

ipj/jm (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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