WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought to allay German concerns over allegations of espionage, pledging to work to improve cooperation during his first conversation with Germany’s leader since two Germans were revealed to have spied on their country for the United States.
Seeking to play down the growing rift, the White House said only that Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had “exchanged views on U.S.-German intelligence cooperation” and that Obama had said he’d stay in close touch about intelligence cooperation going forward. The White House said the rest of the call focused on Ukraine and Iran.
Still, the call comes amid fresh strains in an espionage dispute that reached a new low last week when Germany demanded that the CIA station chief in Berlin leave the country.
That move followed published accounts alleging that American intelligence recruited two Germans to spy for Washington: a man who worked at Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, and a defense ministry employee.
The last known conversation between Obama and Merkel was on July 3, but that call took place before German officials had arrested the first alleged U.S. spy, and the White House said the issue didn’t come up.
Outrage has been growing in Germany since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed last year that the U.S. had eavesdropped on Merkel’s cellphone calls. Obama vowed to end that practice, but a broader “no-spy” agreement sought by many Germans didn’t pan out.
The White House has refused to address the substance of the allegations publicly, and has generally brushed off the matter as standard intelligence procedures. Emphasizing the importance of close U.S.-German ties, White House spokesman Josh Earnest has said countries like Germany know that other nations spy, and has suggested Germany should stop litigating the dispute in the media.
That approach hasn’t played well in Germany, a country that prizes the sanctity of personal information and bears deep suspicion of government intrusion, given its history of abuses in the Nazi era and in communist East Germany.
In their conversation, Obama and Merkel also agreed that Russia hasn’t taken the steps to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis that the global community has demanded to spare Russia from further economic sanctions.
The White House said the two leaders committed to working together “to ensure that Europe and the United States remain closely coordinated” on sanctions — an increasingly elusive goal as the U.S. contemplates levying tougher sanctions unilaterally in the face of European reluctance.
The White House long has preferred to levy punishments on Russia in concert with the European Union for maximum effect.
But European countries have been reluctant to take tougher action out of fear of damaging their own economies, and the delay in making good on its warnings to Moscow has raised tough questions about the sincerity of Obama’s threats to Russian President Vladimir Putin.