President Obama, the former college lecturer on constitutional law, got a lecture on privacy rights Wednesday from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and faced tough questions from the German press about his perceived failure to be less warlike after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mrs. Merkel raised the subject of National Security Agency surveillance of the Internet in a private meeting with Mr. Obama in Berlin, where she emphasized the need for “proportionality.”
Later, at a news conference with Mr. Obama at her side, she told reporters that the U.S. government needs to address concerns she shares with her ministers.
“I made clear that although we do see the need for gathering information, the topic of proportionality is always an important one and the free democratic order is based on people feeling safe,” Mrs. Merkel said.
“People have concerns precisely that there may be some kind of blanket, across-the-board gathering of information,” she said. “We talked about this. The questions that we have not yet perhaps satisfactorily addressed, we will address later on.”
Although Mr. Obama is still popular in Germany, there were some signs that Germans have become disillusioned since his celebrity-style visit to Berlin in 2008 as the Democratic nominee for U.S. president. Back then, the influential German weekly magazine Der Spiegel put Mr. Obama on its cover with the headline “Germany Meets the Superstar.”
This week, Mr. Obama again appeared on the cover of Der Spiegel, but with a markedly different headline: “The Lost Friend.”
A German reporter confronted Mr. Obama with a statement rather than a question, saying, “There were a number of hopes in the world that were in a way shattered as regards your legislative term — for example, closing down of Guantanamo, or scrapping the death penalty throughout the whole of the United States, in all of the states.”
The reporter then reminded Mrs. Merkel that the president won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and accused Mr. Obama of “waging a drone war also via Germany.”
“Is he allowed to do that?” the reporter asked.
The president rejected reports that the U.S. is conducting drone strikes against terrorism suspects from U.S. military bases in Germany.
“We do not use Germany as a launching point for unmanned drones … as part of our counterterrorism activities,” Mr. Obama said.
He added: “It continues to be my policy that I want to close Guantanamo. It has been more difficult than I had hoped. On some issues, I need congressional authorization.”
The revelations of widespread NSA snooping into phone records and the Internet have raised concerns in privacy-conscious Europe, especially since the Obama administration said the surveillance on the Web has targeted only data from overseas.
Mr. Obama tried to reassure his German hosts that the U.S. hasn’t invaded their privacy.
“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens, or American citizens, or French citizens or anybody else,” Mr. Obama said. “This is not a situation where we simply go into the Internet and start searching any way that we want.”
Mr. Obama said the information retrieved by the NSA “applies very narrowly,” with secret court supervision, to leads gathered from other intelligence sources. He also defended the programs as necessary to thwarting terrorist plots.
“As a consequence, we’ve saved lives,” Mr. Obama said. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, not just in the United States, but in some cases threats here in Germany. So lives have been saved, and the encroachment on privacy has been strictly limited by a court-approved process.”
Mrs. Merkel agreed, saying that “there were quite a lot of instances where we were getting very important information from the United States.” But she added, “There needs to be a balance; there needs to be a proportionality between upholding security and safety of our people and our country.”
The president also addressed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s announcement Wednesday that he is suspending talks with the U.S. on a proposed security deal as a protest of being left out of negotiations between the Obama administration and the Taliban forces fighting the Kabul government.
“We had anticipated at the outset there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly,” Mr. Obama said. “There’s enormous mistrust. We’re in the middle of a war, and Afghans are still being killed.”
But he said the U.S. still believes there must be “a parallel track” to look at the prospects of political reconciliation in Afghanistan.
“President Karzai himself recognizes the need for political reconciliation,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he hopes “the process will proceed.”
In a terse statement from his office, Mr. Karzai said negotiations with the U.S. on what American and coalition security forces will remain in the country after 2014 have been put on hold.