WASHINGTON — President Obama tried to mend fences with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Friday, calling her “one of my closest friends on the world stage.” But Merkel replied tartly that Germany still had significant differences with the United States over surveillance practices and that it was too soon to return to “business as usual.”
The cordial but slightly strained encounter, which played out as the two leaders stood next to each other at a Rose Garden news conference, attested to the lingering scars left by the sensational disclosure last October that the National Security Agency had eavesdropped on Merkel’s phone calls.
It came as the two leaders sought to project a unified front against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, threatening President Vladimir Putin with sweeping new sanctions if Russia disrupted elections in Ukraine this month, even as they acknowledged that not all European countries were ready to sign on to the most punishing measures.
Merkel, who last fall declared that “spying between friends is simply unacceptable” and that the United States had opened a breach of trust that would have to be repaired, said at the news conference that “we have a few difficulties yet to overcome.” One remaining issue, she said, was the “proportionality” of the surveillance.
Obama, pointing to his administration’s efforts to restore privacy safeguards, even for non-Americans, said, “We have gone a long way in closing some of the gaps, but as Chancellor Merkel said, there are some gaps that need to be worked through.”
Nearly a year after the first disclosures about the NSA’s practices at home and abroad, however, the agency is emerging with a mandate to make only modest changes: some new limits on what kind of data it can hold about Americans, and stricter White House oversight of decisions to tap the cellphones of foreign leaders.
“These are complicated issues,” Obama said of the debate over surveillance and civil liberties, as he glanced over at Merkel. “We’re not perfectly aligned yet, but we share the same values, and we share the same concerns.”