German Chancellor Angela Merkel is President Obama’s
“go-to partner” when it comes to world crises, from negotiating with Iran to persuading Europe to adopt harsher sanctions against Russia, according to a senior administration official.

So if Merkel has a problem — particularly one as big as the repeated revelations of U.S. spying on Germany — “obviously, the United States has to pay attention, and is paying attention,” the official said. “People in Washington get it.”

But according to many in Merkel’s government, and to investigators digging into years of espionage by the United States against one of its closest and most trusted allies, Washington doesn’t seem to get it at all.

“We have asked questions more than a year ago that have still not been answered,” Patrick Sensburg, chairman of the German parliamentary committee investigating surveillance programs described in documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, said in an interview. “What is the aim of this spying? Why are you doing it? What is the reason?”

This week, after recent disclosures that the CIA had paid a German intelligence official for secret documents, Obama dispatched two of his most senior aides — White House Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough and chief counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco — to Berlin.

At a news conference in Beijing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was asked about allegations that a German man worked as a double agent for U.S. intelligence. (Reuters)

The trip, arranged in a phone call last week between Obama and Merkel, came after the German government balked at an administration offer to send CIA Director John Brennan to Berlin to meet with his intelligence counterpart, but without allowing him to speak with investigating lawmakers or make any public statement, according to German officials. U.S. officials denied any restrictions on a proposed Brennan visit.

“There must be some public aspect to it” to assuage German public outrage, a senior German official said of the dialogue begun Tuesday. “It can’t be reduced to a secret intelligence communication thing . . . [and] we have to explain it to Parliament.”

In a four-hour session with
McDonough and Monaco, Merkel chief of staff Peter Altmaier “explained again the political damage” that the spy revelations have caused, including acknowledged U.S. tapping of Merkel’s personal cellphone, the official said.

“We haven’t seen any results yet, but it’s a start,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door session. “We wanted to put it on a political level.”

The next step, the official said, will be setting up what the White House called a “structured dialogue . . . to establish guiding principles as the basis for continued and future cooperation” between the two countries. The German official said they would eventually draft an agreement on broad outlines to govern the bilateral intelligence relationship.

Germany, the official said, does not expect a formal “no-spy” agreement, but ideally would like U.S. assurances that any espionage conducted on German territory would not include spying on German citizens or Germany’s intelligence agency, known as the BND.

While third-country terrorism suspects, including so-called foreign fighters, in Germany are legitimate U.S. intelligence targets, Berlin would expect U.S. intelligence to stop tapping German phones and to refrain from “asking BND agents to deliver security documents to the CIA at the expense of American taxpayers,” the official said.

The revelation early this month that the CIA had paid a BND employee for classified documents was “the cherry on the cocktail,” the official said. In response, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there had been a “break of trust” between the two governments, and Germany expelled the CIA’s Berlin station chief.

The tawdry circumstances of the BND case, and the relative uselessness of the documents, seemed to push the Germans over the top.

Identified by the German media as “Markus R.,” the employee
e-mailed the U.S. Embassy in Berlin more than two years ago on his personal Gmail account, offering documents in exchange for cash. The Americans, who decided to run the agent out of the CIA station in Austria rather than Germany, paid him more than $30,000.

Markus R. was caught only after he recently offered the same deal to the Russian Consulate in Munich, communicating on the same Gmail account. The Germans, who keep watch on some Russian communications, intercepted the message.

Amid widespread German belief that the Americans have been spying on everything, Sensburg last week suggested that parliamentary investigators should get rid of their computers and work only on typewriters.

German officials, including cabinet officers, have moved private internal conversations to special, sealed rooms and exchanged their cellphones for cryptophones that provide security from eavesdropping and interception, Der Spiegel magazine reported this week.

While the Obama administration appears eager to do whatever it takes to repair the relationship, some U.S. officials have rolled their eyes at German outrage, insisting that mature countries — even friends — are expected to spy on each other and that Germany does the same in the United States.

Whether the latter is a presumption or based on factual information was unclear, and officials who expressed those views declined to expand on them. Germany has denied spying in the United States.

Now that the ice has been broken on an intelligence-related political dialogue, both governments say they want to resolve the issue and put it behind them.

“It’s important for both sides to ensure that this conversation about intelligence doesn’t dominate the relationship,” said the Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive diplomacy.

“It’s important to reclaim the public narrative in Germany about how important this relationship is to the Americans, the Germans and the Europeans.”

Faiola reported from Berlin.