German spy chiefs will travel to Washington shortly to talk with U.S. officials about the spying allegations that have so angered Europe, including whether Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone was monitored by the National Security Agency. (Markus Schreiber / AP)
BRUSSELS — German spy chiefs will travel to Washington shortly to talk with U.S. officials about the spying allegations that have so angered Europe, including whether Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone was monitored by the National Security Agency.
The heads of Germany’s foreign and domestic intelligence agencies will participate in the talks with the White House and the NSA, German government spokesman Georg Streiter announced Friday.
Streiter did not give a specific date for the trip, saying it was being arranged on “relatively short notice.” He said the exact composition of the team was still being determined.
European Union leaders, meeting Friday at a summit in Brussels, vowed to maintain a strong trans-Atlantic partnership despite their anger over allegations of widespread U.S. spying on allies. Still, France and Germany are insisting the United States agree upon new surveillance rules with them this year to stop U.S. eavesdropping on their leaders, innocent civilians and companies.
“We are seeking a basis for cooperation between our (intelligence) services, which we all need and from which we have all received a great deal of information … that is transparent, that is clear and is in keeping with the character of being partners,” Merkel told reporters.
A White House National Security Council spokeswoman said the Germans would be welcome but did not address what concessions the U.S. was prepared to offer to tamp down the spying debacle that the Guardian newspaper reports may have involved up to 35 foreign leaders.
“German officials plan to travel to Washington in coming weeks and the U.S. government looks forward to meeting with them,” Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman, said. “We expect a range of meetings with relevant officials across the U.S. interagency, but we do not have specific meetings to announce at this point.”
Several European leaders noted the continent’s close political and commercial ties to the U.S. must be protected as EU nations demand more assurances from the Obama administration.
“What is at stake is preserving our relations with the United States,” said French President Francois Hollande. “Trust has to be restored and reinforced.”
“The main thing is that we look to the future. The trans-Atlantic partnership was and is important,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose nation holds the rotating presidency of the 28-country bloc.
Merkel complained to President Barack Obama on Wednesday after her government received information that her cellphone may have been monitored. Merkel and Hollande insisted that, beyond being fully briefed on what happened in the past, the European allies and Washington need to set up common rules for U.S. surveillance that does not impede the fundamental rights of its allies.
“The United States and Europe are partners, but this partnership must be built on trust and respect,” Merkel said early Friday. “That of course also includes the work of the respective intelligence services.”
The German visit to Washington aims primarily to clear up what happened in the past. Streiter, the German spokesman, said details of negotiations on a future spying agreement between Germany, France and the U.S. were still being worked out.
“What exactly is going to be regulated, how and in what form it will be negotiated and by whom, I cannot tell you right now,” he told reporters. “But you will learn about it in the near future because we have put some pressure to do this speedily.”
The United States already has a written intelligence-sharing agreement with Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand known as “Five Eyes.” France and Germany be interested in that program or a similar deal, but it is not clear the U.S. would be willing to agree to that. Still, the spying controversy has given the Europeans extra leverage in upcoming trade talks with the U.S.
Unlike Germany, France and Belgium, Britain has not complained publicly about NSA actions. Britain and the U.S. enjoy a strong, mutually beneficial intelligence-sharing program, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman has refused to comment on the controversy.
The White House may soon face other irked heads of state and government. British newspaper The Guardian said it obtained a confidential memo suggesting the NSA was able to monitor 35 world leaders’ communications in 2006.
The memo said the NSA encouraged senior officials at the White House, Pentagon and other agencies to share their contacts so the spy agency could add foreign leaders’ phone numbers to its surveillance systems, the report said.
Obama’s adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, wrote in an editorial published on the USA Today website that the U.S. government is not operating “unrestrained.”
The U.S. intelligence community has more restrictions and oversight than any other country, she wrote.
“We are not listening to every phone call or reading every email. Far from it.”
Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Gregory Katz in London and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.