Obama sanctioned Merkel taps

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US PRESIDENT Barack Obama was personally informed of phone tapping against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which may have begun as early as 2002, German media reported on Sunday as a damaging espionage scandal widened.

Bild am Sonntag newspaper quoted US intelligence sources as saying that National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander had briefed Obama on the operation against Merkel in 2010.

‘Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue,’ the newspaper quoted a high-ranking NSA official as saying.

News weekly Der Spiegel reported that leaked NSA documents showed that Merkel’s phone had appeared on a list of spying targets since 2002, and was still under surveillance weeks before Obama visited Berlin in June.

As a sense of betrayal spread in many world capitals allegedly targeted by the NSA, European leaders are calling for a new deal with Washington on intelligence gathering that would maintain an essential alliance while keeping the fight against terrorism on track.

Germany will send its own spy chiefs to Washington soon to demand answers.

Meanwhile several thousand protesters gathered in Washington on Saturday to push for new US legislation to curb the NSA’s activities.

Swiss president Ueli Maurer warned that the scandal risked ‘undermining confidence between states’.

‘We don’t know if we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg or if other governments are acting in the same ruthless manner,’ he told the Schweiz am Sonntag weekly.

Merkel confronted Obama with the snooping allegations in a phone call last Wednesday saying that such spying would be a ‘breach of trust’ between international partners.

The suspicion also prompted Berlin to summon the US ambassador – a highly unusual move between the close allies.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported without citing its sources that Obama had told Merkel during their call that he had been unaware of any spying against her.

Der Spiegel said he told her that if he had been informed of the operation he would have stopped it at once.

Other media reports said that Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice had also told German officials the president knew nothing of the spying.

Merkel’s office declined to comment on what he told her during their conversation.

The White House has said it is not monitoring Merkel’s phone calls and will not do so in future, but it has refused to say whether it did previously.

Bild am Sonntag said that Obama wanted to be informed in detail about Merkel, who has played a decisive role in the eurozone debt crisis and is widely seen as Europe’s most powerful leader.

As a result, the report said, the NSA stepped up its surveillance of her communications, targeting not only the mobile phone she uses to conduct business for her conservative Christian Democratic Union party but also her encrypted official device, which she had only acquired over the summer.

Bild said US intelligence specialists were then able to monitor the content of her conversations as well as text messages, which Merkel sends by the dozen each day to key associates.

Only the specially secured land line in her office was out of the reach of the NSA, which sent the intelligence gathered straight to the White House bypassing the agency’s headquarters in Fort

Meade, Maryland, according to the report.

Bild and Spiegel described a hive of spy activity on the fourth floor of the US embassy in central Berlin, a stone’s throw from the government quarter, from which the United States kept tabs on Merkel and other German officials.

Der Spiegel cited a classified 2010 document indicating that US intelligence had 80 high-tech surveillance offices worldwide in cities including Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Geneva and Frankfurt.

If the spying against Merkel began in 2002, it would mean the United States under then president George W. Bush targeted her while she was still the country’s chief opposition leader, three years before she became chancellor.

Bild said Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder was also in the NSA’s sights because of his vocal opposition to the US invasion of Iraq and close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As anger simmered in Berlin, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich declared furiously: ‘Surveillance is a crime and those responsible must be brought to justice.’

A poll for the newspaper found that 76 per cent of Germans believe Obama should apologise for the alleged spying on Merkel, and 60 per cent said the scandal had damaged German-US ties.

The scandal derived from documents acquired from US fugitive defence contractor Edward Snowden by Spiegel.

The Social Democrats’ chief whip Thomas Oppermann told Bild am Sonntag that German MPs would now like to question Snowden.

He said: ‘Snowden’s accounts seem credible while the US government apparently lied to us about this matter.’

• Turkish riot police fired tear gas and halted a march by some 100 students on Saturday.

The students were protesting against the clearance of trees on an Ankara university campus to make way for a controversial road development.

According to the left-wing student group, Genc-Der, which organised the demonstration, 26 people were arrested as they tried to march to the campus of the Middle East Technical University from Ankara city centre.

The protesters were attempting to plant trees in the garden of a public building, a Genc-Der representative said, adding that police prevented them from doing so.

For several weeks there have been sporadic protests in Ankara and other Turkish cities against the plan to build a road through the campus in a bid to alleviate traffic congestion in the Turkish capital.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose rule was hit by an unprecedented wave of protests during the summer over an urban development plan in Istanbul, last week denounced those who opposed the project in Ankara as ‘modern bandits’.

According to estimates the protests in the summer saw some 2.5 million people take to the streets over a three-week period to demand the resignation of Erdogan, seen by many as an authoritarian leader trying to ‘Islamise’ Turkey. The clashes left six people dead.

l Fierce clashes raged on Saturday after Syrian Kurds seized from jihadists a crossing on the Iraqi border, a key supply route for weapons and fighters in the 31-month war, activists said.

UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi meanwhile was due to visit Iran as he presses efforts to build a consensus for a Geneva conference aimed at ending the conflict that has killed tens of thousands.

Fighters from both sides were killed in the border clashes.

The Kurds ‘took control of the Al-Yaarubia border crossing with Iraq at dawn after clashes with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the Al-Nusra Front and other rebels,’ the self-styled Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, citing activists.

The Kurds have been struggling to carve out an autonomous northeastern region similar to one in northern Iraq, further complicating the Syrian war.

NATO-backed ‘rebels’ fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned their guns on each other in the past few months, with jihadists clashing with the mainstream Free Syrian Army in the north, where the rebels control vast swathes of territory.

The seizure of the border post was another reported blow for the Islamists after Syrian state television said on Friday that Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, had been killed, but the Al-Qaeda-linked group said he was in good health.

Saturday’s violence came a day after a car bomb outside a mosque in Suq Wadi Barada, a town near Damascus, killed at least 40 people and wounded dozens more, according to the Observatory.

State news agency SANA said ‘the car exploded while the terrorists were packing it with explosives.’

Elsewhere an army ambush killed about 24 rebels on the outskirts of Damascus, said the Observatory. SANA put the toll at 40.

The Syrian army has closed in on Eastern Ghouta, a ring of suburbs besieged for months, which was targeted by terrorists in an August chemical attack that killed hundreds of people and almost led to punitive US strikes after the US claimed the attack was carried out by government forces.

Meanwhile, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos on Friday called on the UN Security Council to put ‘sustained pressure’ on Syria to allow access to some 2.5 million trapped civilians.

In the northern Sfeirah district near Aleppo, some 130,000 Syrians have fled non-stop heavy bombing in a ‘massive exodus’ this month, said Doctors Without Borders.

A UN-commissioned report said more than half of Syria’s population is living in poverty and warned the economic devastation could last for years.

UN agencies said they were racing to vaccinate children against a host of diseases amid fears of a polio outbreak, which would be the country’s first since 1999.

The mushrooming humanitarian crisis, and the initial success in implementing a US-Russian accord to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal, have spurred renewed efforts to convene peace talks.

But despite pressure from its Western and Arab backers, the fractured Syrian opposition has yet to decide whether to attend the so-called Geneva 2 conference proposed for next month.

The self-styled ‘opposition’ has insisted that Assad step down as part of any political settlement, which Damascus says is off the table.