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Merkel questions Obama on surveillance

But seems to confirm it helped in Germany

President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference before his speech at Brandenburg Gate.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference before his speech at Brandenburg Gate.

BERLIN — Challenged by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany about US intelligence programs that monitor foreigners’ communications, President Obama said Wednesday that German terrorist threats were among those foiled by such operations — a contention that Merkel seemed to confirm.

Their exchanges, in private at the start of his state visit and later at a joint news conference, preceded Obama’s speech to some 4,500 people at the Brandenburg Gate, near where the Berlin Wall once stood and other US presidents — John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton — had paid tribute to the German-American alliance against outside threats from communism to terrorism.

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“No wall can stand against the yearning of justice — the yearnings for freedom, the yearnings for peace — that burns in the human heart,” Obama said in his speech.

He used the address to propose that the United States and Russia further reduce their nuclear arsenals. Yet the anticipation of the speech at the historic site was offset by attention to the dispute over the revelations of the breadth of US surveillance programs, which include both Prism, an effort to monitor foreign communications at US Internet companies like Google, as well as a vast database of domestic phone logs. The programs monitor the communications without individualized court orders.

“We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, not just in the United States but in some cases here in Germany,” Obama said. “So lives have been saved.”

He did not provide any details. But Merkel, who acknowledged that Germany has received “very important information” from the United States, cited the Sauerland cell as an example of such antiterrorism intelligence cooperation.

In that case, four Islamic militants were sentenced to up to 12 years in jail in 2010 for plotting terrorist attacks against US targets in Germany. They were apprehended in 2007 and confessed in 2009.

Obama, repeating defenses he has made to Americans, described how he had made sure when he took office that the intelligence programs “were examined and scrubbed.” He emphasized that the United States monitored metadata on phone numbers that were linked to suspected terrorist activities and did not eavesdrop on the content of calls or e-mails without getting a court order.

“So the encroachment of liberty has been strictly circumscribed,” he said.

“We do have to strike a balance, and we do have to be cautious about how our governments are operating when it comes to intelligence,” Obama said, adding, “This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary e-mails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else.”

“It’s necessary for us to debate these issues,” Merkel replied. “People have concerns.”

The interplay between the leaders reflected a mutual respect that they have developed over recent years, despite some of their policy differences.

On some of the other issues — particularly regarding efforts to provide more aid to the Syrian insurgency, and plans for international forces to leave Afghanistan next year — the two leaders agreed, reflecting discussions they had Monday and Tuesday in Northern Ireland with other heads of state at the meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.

Merkel agreed with Obama that Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, had lost legitimacy because of his government’s bloodshed and should not be part of the new government that the United States, Germany, and other European allies sought in Syria.

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