WASHINGTON – The United States on Monday declined to comment on claims that its spies are conducting sweeping surveillance of hundreds of prominent Germans, though it did not deny the reports.
The claims by a newspaper, following a transatlantic row over revelations that Washington’s National Security Agency intercepted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications, marked another test for wobbling US-German relations.
The National Security Council did not confirm or deny the reports in the Bild am Sonntag that Washington was eavesdropping on hundreds of key Germany figures, including a cabinet minister.
Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden noted that US spy agencies would continue to “gather information about the intentions of governments — as opposed to ordinary citizens — around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation do.”
“We will not apologize because our services may be more effective.”
But she reiterated that in the wake of revelations by fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama had ordered a halt to US surveillance on friendly foreign leaders.
Merkel reacted furiously to reports Washington had intercepted conversations on her cellphone, and US-German relations are currently enduring their rockiest period for a decade as a result.
The report out of Berlin claimed that 320 political and business leaders in Germany were being monitored by the NSA, including Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.
The paper quoted an unnamed senior US intelligence employee as saying US spies had been ordered not to allow the loss of intercepts on Merkel to hamper US information gathering.
The report sat awkwardly alongside an interview with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, published in Spiegel magazine on Sunday, in which he expressed his belief that the United States had learned its lesson about spying on allied countries.
“Washington has hopefully understood that the type of contact with its partners can also have a political price,” Spiegel quoted Steinmeier as saying in response to a question about US surveillance of Germans.
Steinmeier appeared to back away from a “no spying” agreement that Germany has been pushing for in the wake of the scandal, saying he was doubtful that it will “bring us much further”.
Germany is especially sensitive to mass state spying on citizens due to memories of methods employed by the Stasi secret police in the former communist East.