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Spying Allegations Rock U.S.-German Relations


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The fallout from the National Security Agency leaks continues to spread. Over the weekend, Germany's leading newspapers lashed out at President Obama - once a beloved figure in Europe. Obama's Aura is Gone, read one headline. The outrage comes from reports that the Obama administration knew the U.S. government was monitoring the personal phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for more than a decade.

This comes after earlier leaks alleging that the NSA was listening in on leaders in other countries, including Mexico and Brazil, and that the NSA had collected massive amounts of data from another ally, France. For more on this I'm joined by Tim Naftali. He's a Senior Research Fellow in national security with the New America Foundation. Good Morning.

TIM NAFTALI: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with your reaction to these most recent revelations.

NAFTALI: I was surprised by how President Hollande of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany did not attempt to hide their anger at the allegations of NSA spying on their country, and in the case of Chancellor Merkel, on herself. Angela Merkel showed real anger and both the French and the Germans called in our ambassadors. Which is normally not something you do with an ally.

MONTAGNE: The chancellor called in the American ambassador.

NAFTALI: Now, the thing about this is that both France and Germany are aware - we've been sharing material with them and there was a foiled terrorist plot in 2010 that apparently involved - would've involved attacks in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. So they're aware of the nature of the materials we're collecting. What's very important about this particular scandal is that they see our collection as going beyond the pale.

We have somehow crossed a boundary that they understood existed, and where we've gone, they don't accept it anymore.

MONTAGNE: Give us a (unintelligible) of the context, of the history, of intelligence services within these allies, these long-time allies.

NAFTALI: Well, I mean, you hear this, it's true: Countries spy on each other. There's an exception and exception has to do with an historical accident. In 1940 with, you know, the British nation seemingly on the verge of extinction, Winston Churchill makes a very important decision. He's going to share his greatest secrets with the United States.

The United States doesn't have much of an intelligence community so the British actually help build our intelligence community. Over the course of World War II, Washington and London share remarkably sensitive information. By the end of the war you have, in a sense, a fusion of the two intelligence communities.

But what happened by the end of World War II is that the American and British signals intelligence communities, they decided to jointly attack communications around the world. It became a global alliance. And in subsequent years, it was a source of great tension with the French and the Germans because they weren't included.

The United States and the British Commonwealth countries were going after every single communication system, including that of allies - despite the fact that some of these allies were in NATO with them.

MONTAGNE: Has everything changed, in a sense, when it's discovered that a German chancellor has had her personal cell phone spied upon? Is that enough of a game changer that things will not go back to business as usual?

NAFTALI: I think it's enough of a game changer. In foreign spying there's a question of - it's not right or wrong, it's a matter of prudent or reckless. And when you attack the communications of an allied head of state, you're taking a huge risk. And it didn't pay off. And I cannot imagine that Angela Merkel is going to allow the intelligence sharing system that existed last week to continue.

She's going to want a big change. President Obama's challenge is that he's got to get ahead of this. This has gone so far and has such diplomatic repercussions, President Obama cannot help but take it seriously and see it as a reason to alter the way in which we share our signals intelligence with Europe.

It's going to be very hard because, of course, whatever we promise the French and the Germans, a lot of other NATO countries are going to want as well. So much of this will have to be done in secret. And the one thing we should expect, or should hope for, is that Congress will play a role and we will see a change in the leadership of the NSA.

Because a signal has to be sent abroad to our allies, that we take seriously, their concerns about the ambit of NSA collection.

MONTAGNE: Tim Naftali of the New America Foundation. Thanks very much.

NAFTALI: My pleasure, Renee. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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