Obama’s phone call with Angela Merkel sounds like it was horribly awkward

October 23, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with President Obama in the White House in 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

When German officials up to and including Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage at reports that the United States may have been monitoring Merkel's cellphone, she decided to call up President Obama directly. Their Wednesday phone conversation, revealed today, sounds like it must have been just horrendously uncomfortable.

The only people who know exactly what was said on that call are the two leaders and their aides (and perhaps the National Security Agency, if Merkel's fears are correct). Both of their offices have put out statements, though, and it appears to have been what diplomats sometimes call "a frank and candid exchange of views."

Merkel, according to a statement by her spokesman, told Obama that she "unequivocally disapproves of such practices and sees them as completely unacceptable." She added, according to the spokesman's paraphrase, that “between close friends and partners ... there should be no such monitoring of the communication of a head of government. That would be a grave breach of trust."

Ouch. The White House's description of the call is naturally sunnier, but it actually sounds even more unpleasant in their telling. A statement from the press secretary reads: "Today, President Obama and Chancellor Merkel spoke by telephone regarding allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted the communications of the German Chancellor. The President assured the Chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel."

That's quite a thing to have to say to someone. Judging by the statement from Merkel's office today, it doesn't sound like Obama convinced her.

No one likes to think they're being personally spied on, but Germany can sometimes be particularly sensitive about electronic eavesdropping, given the country's history. During the Cold War era, East Germans were frequently and invasively monitored by the dreaded secret police, the Stasi. In June, one German legislator described the NSA programs as "American-style Stasi methods."

Merkel had earlier expressed outrage at NSA spying, announcing in June that she would confront Obama about the programs personally when he visited Berlin for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech later that month. Merkel's justice minister wrote an op-ed in Der Spiegel demanding that "all facts must be put on the table" with regard to NSA monitoring in Germany.

So one can imagine why Merkel, her staff and her government might feel reasonably upset if they thought they had resolved this whole NSA spying business months earlier, or at least discovered the full extent, only to learn that the United States may be listening to the chancellor's personal phone calls. It must have made for quite a conversation with Obama.

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Max Fisher | October 23, 2013