President Obama on Monday admitted that revelations about the National Security Agency’s international spying operations had hurt the U.S.’s reputation in Germany—but he asked for more patience from the close diplomatic ally as he works to bolster privacy safeguards on the handling of foreign data.
“There’s no doubt that the Snowden revelations damaged impressions of Germans with respect to the U.S. government and our intelligence cooperation,” Obama said during a press conference held jointly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But the president quickly defended the importance of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering practices, showing impatience with the international community for its growing skepticism of his administration’s concern for the civil liberties of foreigners.
“Occasionally I would like the German people to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst, assuming that we have been consistently your strong partners and that we share a common set of values,” he said.
Obama stated that his administration had taken significant strides to assuage international concerns about the scope of the NSA’s international surveillance authority. The president referenced a report released last week that provides updates on how the intelligence community can access and store the communications data of foreigners, measures that many privacy advocates have warned do not go far enough.
“We’ve taken some unprecedented measures, for example, to make sure that our intelligence agencies treat non-U.S. citizens in ways that have consistent with due process and their privacy concerns,” Obama said. “Something that I put in a presidential order and has not been ever done, not only by our intelligence agencies, but I think by most intelligence agencies around the world.”
Obama added: “There are still going to be areas where we’ve got to work through these issues. We have to internally work throw some of these issues. They’re complicated. They’re difficult.”
Leaked NSA files revealed in 2013 appeared to suggest that the NSA had tapped Merkel’s personal phone, perhaps without Obama’s consent or knowledge. The scandal reportedly made Merkel irate, and contributed to a belief in Germany that spying under Obama had grown too unfettered.
Tensions grew so strained that Germany launched an investigation into the apparent espionage, a probe that has not yet shown any proof that the bugging occurred. But the damage to U.S. credibility was already done. A survey conducted by YouGov last month, for example, found that Snowden was more admired in Germany than Obama.
Merkel visited the White House in May, which marked her first visit since the Snowden leaks began. At the time, Obama said he intended to work with Merkel to build a better framework for intelligence sharing, but added that there was not a “blanket no-spying agreement” between the U.S. and Germany or any other country. Reports last year indicated that the two countries failed to reach an accord on the matter.
Merkel on Monday reiterated that there is a gap between her country and the U.S. on how to carry out surveillance. But the popular German leader, who is serving her third term as chancellor, was more restrained than she has been in previous comments about the NSA, suggesting tensions may have cooled. She acknowledged that the U.S. provides “significant” intelligence that protects German and international security.
“On the NSA issue, I think there are still different assessments on individual issues there,” she said. “But if we look at the sheer dimension of the terrorists threat, we’re more than aware of the fact that we need to work together very closely.”
Under the changes the Obama administration announced last week, U.S. intelligence analysts will be required to immediately delete some communications data of Americans that is “incidentally” collected during foreign surveillance hauls. Similarly non-consequential data about foreigners will also be terminated—but can still be held for up to five years.
Despite the minor tweaks, much of the NSA’s snooping authority remains the same as it was prior to Snowden’s disclosures. The government’s bulk collection of U.S. phone records, for example, has continued largely unaltered. Obama called for the end of the program more than a year ago, but said he had to wait for Congress to send him a bill that met his specifications.
White House-endorsed legislation failed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate in November. That bill, the USA Freedom Act, is expected to be revived in the coming weeks. Lawmakers must act in some fashion before key provisions of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, including a section that grants the NSA much of its surveillance power, expires on June 1.