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Obama Promises U.S-German "Cyberdialogue"

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, May 2 2014

(German Government/Bundesregierung.de)

President Obama said he was committed to a U.S.- German "cyberdialogue" in a White House press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as he continued to try to regain the trust of German public opinion that has been pre-occupied with the NSA surveillance revelations and the fate of Edward Snowden.

Reiterating that he had ordered U.S. intelligence services to take the privacy interests of non-U.S. citizens into account in their work, he said the dialogue would help close transparency gaps over how U.S. and German intelligence services operate differently.

"Angela Merkel is one of my closest friends on the world stage and somebody whose partnership I deeply value. And so it has pained me to see the degree to which the Snowden disclosures have created strains in the relationship," Obama said. "I will repeat what I’ve said before, that ordinary Germans are not subject to continual surveillance, are not subject to a whole range of bulk data gathering. I know that the perceptions, I think, among the public sometimes are that, you know, the United States has capacities similar to what you see on movies and in — in television. The truth of the matter is, is that our focus is principally and primarily on how do we make sure that terrorists, those want to proliferate weapons, transnational criminals are not able to engage in the activities that they’re engaging in."

The Pew Research Center helpfully tweeted, parallel to the press conference, a survey from earlier this year that showed only three percent of Germans trust American privacy standards, while 85 percent trust European standards. Among Americans, 49 percent trust American standards and 29 percent trust European standards.

Just the other day, the New York Times looked at how movies and television such as the new Captain America film and The Good Wife have reflected some of the more controversial aspects of Obama's tenure in the area of surveillance and drone warfare. "The public relations machinery of the White House assiduously tries to control Mr. Obama’s image and legacy, but there is nothing it can do to stop artistic interpretation of his policies," Michael Shear writes in the piece.

Aside from an understandable focus on the Ukraine crisis, the surveillance issue was one of the main other subjects of the news conference. Following the widespread reports that her phone had been an NSA target, Merkel raised the issue in her opening remarks, in contrast to Obama. She noted that there were "differences of opinion" on how to strike a balance between the intensity of surveillance and the protection of individual freedoms.

But she also highlighted that she had the impression that the U.S. was willing to engage in discussions on the European level on issues such as the safe harbor agreement and the privacy protection agreement, including closer cooperation on the parliamentary level.

Merkel said the "cyber dialogue" was important because "that gives us a forum to have somewhat longer discussions as to where we stand individually, what the technical possibilities, but also ramifications of our technological advances are."

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that the Merkel government had informed a German parliamentary inquiry into NSA surveillance that a personal invitation for Edward Snowden to testify in person to the committee would "run counter to the political interests of the Federal Republic" and "put a grave and permanent strain" on U.S.-German relations.

Member of the opposition German Green Party criticized that stance. "Merkel is displaying cowardice towards our ally America. We owe the Americans nothing in this respect. The government must at least make a serious effort to safely bring Snowden to Germany and let him give evidence here. But Merkel doesn't want that," the Guardian quoted Green party leader Simone Peter.

The New York Times reported Thursday night on how negotiations about a "no spy" agreement sought by German officials had fallen apart. Citing Germany's spokesperson Steffen Seibert, the Times noted that Germany continued to assert that any activity on German soil must follow German law, and that monitoring would constitute a violation.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials emphasized that they did not have no-spy agreements with any close allies, including members of so-called Five Eyes group such as Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Obama reiterated that position at the press conference, and countered German claims that the U.S. had offered an agreement and then withdrawn it, stating that "we’re not holding back from doing something with Germany that we somehow do with somebody else."

President Obama has shown himself to be very aware of the significant impact the Snowden revelations has had on German perceptions of the U.S., and earlier this year responded in the form of an interview with German television.

When Obama visited Berlin last year, prior to the German elections just as the Snowden revelations were published, his initial comments on the surveillance dialogue were almost overshadowed by online mockery of Merkel responding to the surveillance and legal implications of online surveillance by referring to the Internet as "new" or "uncharted" territory, in German "Neuland."