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Obama pledges to protect US-German ties

US president acknowledges anger in Germany, saying it would take time to restore trust between the two allies.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2014 03:08
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Relations between Germany and the US plunged to a new low over American spying tactics. [Reuters]

President Barack Obama has told a German television in an interview that he will not allow US communications surveillance capability to damage relations with Germany and other close US allies.

Obama made the pledge in a rare interview with Germany's ZDF television on Saturday, in an apparent step to repair the damage to America's relations with Germany, after reports of extensive US spying on European citizens, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel accused the US of a grave breach of trust after reports about her mobile phone being tapped by the US National Security Agency emerged in October.

Her government has been pressing for a "no spying" agreement with Washington since then.

Her centre-right party's foreign policy spokesman, Philipp Missfelder, said on Thursday that revelations about US spying in Germany had plunged relations with Washington to their lowest level in more than a decade.

Snowden leaks

During the 16-minute interview, Obama acknowledged the anger in Germany and elsewhere caused by the spy revelations, after the leak of documents obtained by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden to news media.

Obama said it would take time to restore trust, although he defended US surveillance as necessary to protect the US and its allies, including Germany.

"Our intelligence agencies, like German intelligence agencies, and every intelligence agency out there, will continue to be interested in the government intentions of countries around the world. That's not going to change," he said.

"And there is no point in having an intelligence service if you are restricted to the things that you can read in the New York Times or Der Spiegel.

"The truth of the matter is that by definition the job of intelligence is to find out: Well, what are folks thinking? What are they doing?", he said.

Obama said that before the revelations he had forged a close working relationship with Merkel, and that he could not allow US surveillance operations to damage that trust.

"As long as I am president of the United States, the German chancellor need not worry about that," Obama said, according to a simultaneous German translation as he spoke.

New limits on data collection

The interview was broadcast a day after Obama ordered new limits on the way US intelligence accesses phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans, and moved toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government's hands.

Obama also promised to curb spying on allied leaders and to extend some privacy protections to foreign citizens - demands that have special resonance in Germany because of its bitter memories of massive domestic surveillance by the Nazis and East German Communists.

German interviewer Claus Kleber told Obama that initial reaction in Germany toward his speech had been "sceptical, careful, many even disappointed" including those who are "normally pro-American".

Following the Friday speech, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany would wait and see what happens before making a final judgment on Obama's intelligence reforms.

Germany hosts more than 30,000 American troops, mostly in the south and west.

The German news weekly Der Spiegel, citing Snowden documents, has reported that US diplomatic and military facilities in Germany have been used for surveillance operations in the past.

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