Obama denies that US spied on German chancellor -- or does he?

It's an ever-growing pastime: reading between the lines of US statements about its surveillance programs. The latest episode has to do with the German chancellor's concerns that her cell phone was tapped.

Edward Moyer
Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
Expertise Wordsmithery. Credentials Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
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"Hello. Angela Merkel's office. Who is this *really*?" (That's Merkel in the blue jacket.) Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

The phraseology of the US intelligence community and its allies isn't likely to win any awards when it comes to quieting people's suspicions and instilling confidence.

The latest example of potential caginess comes in the White House's statement Wednesday that the United States isn't eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Der Spiegel reports that in a phone call to President Obama today, Merkel "asked for a thorough explanation of serious indications that US intelligence agencies had declared her private mobile phone to be a target in their operations."

Obama's response? According to a White House press release (and to WH press secretary Jay Carney -- see embedded video), "The president assured [Merkel] that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications" of the chancellor.

A spokeswoman for the National Security Council apparently told Der Spiegel the same thing, and as the German publication pointed out, the tenses used in the statement address present and future actions -- but not what might have happened before.

"The spokeswoman did not wish to specify whether this statement applied to the past," Der Spiegel's authors noted, somewhat dryly.

The Twitterati weren't caught flat-footed either. Several journalists, including Wall Street Journal intelligence correspondent Siobhan Gorman and Politico reporter Josh Gerstein, noted the seemingly careful wording, which prompted a riposte from Archie Bland, a senior writer at the UK's Independent.

"Everyone is super excited and feels like a spy because they spotted that WH denial over merkel phone DOES NOT INCLUDE PAST TENSE," Bland wrote.

To which Politico reporter Tony Romm replied, "i don't think it's wrong to question semantics when the IC [Intelligence Community] has been very particular abt [sic] semantics for years."

Indeed, it's not all that hard to understand Romm's (and the general) reaction to the White House's fussy wording. After all, we've had congressmen telling us about the word games the National Security Agency plays with lawmakers. ("We have to ask exactly the right question to get the right answer," Rep. Justin Amash [R-Mich.] has said of the NSA's briefings in front of Congress. "If we don't ask the precise question, we don't get an answer.") And we've heard and seen seeming evasions from high-level intelligence officials that are so unconvincing they're irresistible to TV gag writers.

Is it any wonder that at least some people might suspect the White House's careful word-crafting was done, um, shall we say, wittingly?

It's not a rhetorical question. The news of Merkel's concerns about spying marked the second time this week that a high-ranking official of one of the United States' closest European allies expressed alarm about US surveillance programs. On Monday, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called on the US ambassador in Paris to explain a report in Le Monde that telephone communications of French citizens are intercepted on a massive scale by the NSA. And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's official response to the Le Monde report also prompted accusations of wordplay.

All this as the European Parliament's civil liberties committee pushes for tougher privacy legislation in a tense atmosphere that has US tech companies worrying about their business prospects overseas and reportedly turning up the steam on lobbying efforts meant to influence congressional reforms to NSA programs. (And it's not just Europe; the presidents of Brazil and Mexico have also reportedly been targets of the NSA.)

In an interview today with The Washington Post's The Switch blog, former NSA chief Michael Hayden referred to the stories prompted by the trove of documents leaked by Edward Snowden as "frankly, quite a bit sensationalized." The public can decide if that's an accurate assessment of the media's handling of the revelations. One might be forgiven, however, for adding that the intelligence community and its partners haven't done themselves any favors with their less than reassuring public statements.

We asked the NSA if it wished to clarify the White House's remarks about Merkel. The agency said it had nothing to add.

Here's the White House's statement in full:

Office of the Press Secretary
October 23, 2013

Readout of the President's Phone Call with Chancellor Merkel of Germany

Today, President Obama and Chancellor Merkel spoke by telephone regarding allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted the communications of the German Chancellor. The President assured the Chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel.

The United States greatly values our close cooperation with Germany on a broad range of shared security challenges. As the President has said, the United States is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.

Both leaders agreed to intensify further the cooperation between our intelligence services with the goal of protecting the security of both countries and of our partners, as well as protecting the privacy of our citizens.