Crimea crisis puts US spying in new spotlight

Mar 25 2014, 13:35 IST
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SummaryPresident Barack Obama talks often by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel _ at least five times over the past month.

President Barack Obama talks often by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel _ at least five times over the past month. But he can no longer be as certain as he once was that he knows what she's thinking, really thinking, at a time like this.

The crisis in Ukraine is just the type of situation in which the U.S. intelligence community might once have monitored Merkel's private phone conversations for insights beyond what she might share directly with Obama.

Merkel, a key European leader, expressed outrage when documents provided by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. was monitoring her cellphone conversations, as well as those of 35 other foreign leaders. In the ensuing diplomatic to-do, Obama promised Merkel that the U.S. would stop listening to her calls.

Spying on allies is a tricky proposition: It hurts diplomatic relations when one ally discovers that another is spying. But it can help diplomacy when policy-makers have an inside look at what a key foreign leader and the allies she speaks with are thinking on a specific issue.

As the U.S. and its allies try to step up pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key question is how tough European sanctions against Moscow will be. And that depends largely on what Germany supports. Germany is the world's largest importer of Russian natural gas, so sanctions that damage Russia's economy also could hurt Germany. Obama is meeting with key European allies, including Merkel, in Brussels on Wednesday as part of his weeklong trip to Europe.

Merkel has sent mixed messages about how to respond to Russia annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

She has repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the dispute and proposed a "contact group'' to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. But she has also said Russia's takeover of Crimea violates international law, suggesting the Germans may be willing to take stronger steps.

"To understand her position would be of great value,'' former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said.

After all, this type of surveillance is one of the reasons the NSA was created.

"You want to know the innermost thoughts of people in important positions whose decisions really do affect international development,'' Hayden said.

The White House would not discuss whether the U.S. has a clear understanding of Merkel's intentions regarding Russia.

But CIA Director John Brennan highlighted the U.S. intelligence community's role in diplomatic negotiations last week.

Around the globe, he said, future events like

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