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Soon, U.S. intelligence collection was not just a political problem for Obama domestically, it became a diplomatic liability and forced the White House to make a judgment call.

“Is the intelligence value that we would get greater than the risk of having a political blow-up with an ally?” said Michael Allen, a former member of the National Security Council, the White House body that typically weighs such policy decisions. Allen, now managing director at Beacon Global Strategies, a national security consulting firm, said that’s a decision that has to be made on a case-by-case basis.

One of the panels tasked with reviewing U.S. surveillance operations came to the same conclusion last year and suggested a new process for “high-level” approval of sensitive intelligence collection, like spying on U.S. allies.

For now, though, Obama has said the U.S. won’t spy on Merkel anymore. And he’s reined in the surveillance of dozens of other foreign leaders.

“I’ve made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies,” Obama said in January.

Obama has said the situation in Crimea is a national security concern for the Ukraine and Europe. But the White House would not say whether Crimea meets the threshold for spying on foreign allies.

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Nedra Pickler, Nancy Benac and Matthew Lee and contributed to this report.

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Follow Eileen Sullivan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/esullivanap