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'No spy' deal on the ropes?

January 14, 2014

The White House has said that its review of NSA spying in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's revelations is "near completion," but reports in Germany suggest several of Berlin's demands are already off the table.

Deutschland Symbolbild Skandal um Spähaktion NSA-Geheimdienst
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As Washington said it would announce reforms to its National Security Agency (NSA) later in the week, German media were already focused on a likely disappointing outcome for Berlin in talks on a "no spy" arrangement.

Tuesday's edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung ran the headline: 'The Americans have lied to us,' a quote the paper attributed to an unnamed, high-ranking German civil servant. According to the Süddeutsche, and to a report on regional public broadcaster NDR, the US was set to reject several of Germany's key demands on the issue of espionage.

The news outlets reported that Washington would not promise to cease listening in on politicians' calls, would not specify the time period during which Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone was monitored and would not clarify whether she was the only high-level German politician to be tapped. Furthermore, the reports said German officials would not be granted access to an alleged industrial espionage listening post, believed to be on the top floor of the US embassy in Berlin.

"We're getting nothing," the Süddeutsche quoted a "German expert familiar with the state of the negotiations" as saying. According to the report, Gerhard Schindler, the head of the BND - roughly Germany's equivalent to the NSA - had told his colleagues internally that, given the current state of the talks, he'd prefer not to sign a deal at all.

'Finishing his work'

The governments in Berlin and Washington pointed instead to the ongoing negotiations on the issues, which made the front pages last year when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden turned whistleblower.

"The German government is in talks with its US partners seeking a new foundation for the cooperation of our [security] services. These confidential discussions are ongoing," a government spokeswoman in Berlin said when asked about the latest news reports.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney was similarly coy.

"He is finishing his work, and will be doing so for the next several days, in anticipation of speaking about that work on Friday," Carney said of Obama. "So we're not quite concluded yet in that process, but coming close."

Obama first received a special review board's report on NSA activities in December and has been reviewing the information ahead of his pledged reforms in intelligence-gathering practices.

Already one of the more frequently-monitored countries in the EU or NATO, the NSA scandal hit a new level of notoriety in Germany last October, when it was revealed that Chancellor Merkel's cell phone was targeted. Obama last week invited Merkel to Washington to discuss the issue, without setting a fixed date.

Angela Merkel holding a Smartphone BlackBerry Z10
Merkel might never learn when her communications were compromisedImage: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

A report from the New York Times in December had already hinted that Germany would likely be disappointed in its efforts to broker what the domestic press had dubbed a "no spy agreement." The NYT reported that Obama's national security advisor Susan Rice had already warned the government in Berlin that Washington did not want to set an international precedent by making an explicit arrangement with Germany.

The European Parliament, which has invited Snowden to testify via video-link in its ongoing probe, also published its first report on the extent of NSA espionage last week. The German parliament is considering launching an investigation of its own.

msh/slk (AFP, dpa)