Skip to main content

Obama asks Germany to 'give us the benefit of the doubt' on NSA surveillance

Obama asks Germany to 'give us the benefit of the doubt' on NSA surveillance

Share this story

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has had to justify some truly terrible things during his tenure. He took office five years into a war based on shaky and ultimately false information, running a country that had begun running secret surveillance programs and condoned interrogation that amounted to torture. Various parts of his administration proceeded to aggressively prosecute whistleblowers and continue surveillance, stonewalling Congressional investigations into past misconduct.

Obama has harshly criticized many of these missteps, but he's also started referring to them in a strangely understated, slightly paternal manner, like someone's uncle wearily explaining a political bumper sticker he's been trying to scrape off for years. On the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" tactics, for example:

"We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks."

"Occasionally, I would like the Germans to give us the benefit of the doubt."

Back in 2013, leaked documents showed that US surveillance agencies had been tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel's phone since 2002, a revelation that was less than well-received in Germany. A year and a half later, the issue is still on the table, but Merkel seemed to have softened in a meeting today. "If we look at the sheer dimension of the terrorist threats, we are more than aware of the fact that we need to work together very closely," she said. "The institutions of the United States of American have provided us and still continue to provide us with a lot of very important, very significant information that are also important to our security."

By and large, Obama was equally diplomatic, saying he would "systematically work through some of these issues to create greater transparency and to restore confidence not just for Germans but for our partners around the world." Then, as quoted in The Washington Times, he moved into platitude territory:

"What I would ask would be that the German people recognize that the United States has always been on the forefront of trying to promote civil liberties, that we have traditions of due process that we respect, that we have been a consistent partner of yours in the course of the last 70 years and certainly the last 25 years in reinforcing the values we share. ... So, occasionally, I would like the Germans to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst."

Intelligence legislation is currently all but dead in Congress, and Obama has stuck to vague reform plans while renewing existing surveillance orders. So until this summer, when key sections of the Patriot Act come up for renewal, we're stuck giving the administration the benefit of the doubt here in the US, as well.