June 19, 2013 1:07 pm

Obama seeks to reassure Merkel on secret surveillance

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive for a press conference©AFP

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

President Barack Obama sought to reassure Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that controversial US surveillance of telephone and email records was limited and subject to strict legal controls.

“We are not rifling through the emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anyone else,” he declared in Berlin on Wednesday. “This is a circumscribed, narrow system being aimed to protect us and our people . . . The encroachment on privacy has been strictly limited.”

At a press conference in the chancellor’s office, the US president insisted that US intelligence services monitored telephone traffic simply in order to identify any telephone calls to numbers that had already been flagged as suspicious, and were only allowed to listen in to calls after submitting their request to a federal judge.

He admitted that as far as internet surveillance was concerned, “we have to make sure our administrative rules and protection catch up with this new cyber world”.

He said such surveillance “applies very narrowly to leads that we have obtained on issues related to terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.

“I am confident that at this point we have struck the appropriate balance [between surveillance and protecting people’s privacy,” Mr Obama said, adding that 50 threats had been averted through the surveillance programmes.

“Lives have been saved,” Mr Obama said.

The subject of US surveillance of phone calls and the internet, conducted by the National Security Agency, was raised by Ms Merkel in her talks with the US president, who is on a one-day official visit to the German capital.

The concerns follow allegations earlier this month by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden of widespread internet and telecoms surveillance.

Ms Merkel said it was “necessary for us to debate these issues, and precisely concerns that there may be some kind of blanket across the board gathering of information”. There needed to be a balance between “upholding the safety and security of our people” while protecting the right to privacy, she said.

Mr Obama also flatly denied that Germany was used as a base for launching or operating unmanned drones. Such reports have been carried in the German media.

The German government recently cancelled its own programme to build five drones based on an American prototype, on the grounds that it would be to complex and expensive to get them certified to fly in European airspace.

Additional reporting by John Aglionby in London

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