WASHINGTON — The angry allegation by the German government that the National Security Agency monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel may force President Barack Obama into making a choice he has avoided for years between continuing the age-old game of spying on America’s friends and undercutting cooperation with important partners in tracking terrorists, managing the global economy and slowing Iran’s nuclear program.
The pressure to make such a choice builds each day, as some of the closest U.S. allies have demanded explanations from Washington after similar disclosures about the breadth and sophistication of U.S. electronic spying. Inside the administration, it has touched off behind-the-scenes recriminations between the White House and the intelligence agencies over how much detail was given to White House officials about which world leaders are being monitored.
“This was colossally bad judgment — doing something because you can, instead of asking if you should,’’ said one career U.S. official with long experience in Europe.
The tension with Germany built last week after German officials were given evidence of the cellphone monitoring by Der Spiegel, the German weekly magazine. The first protests to Washington came in an angry phone call to Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, from her German counterpart, Christoph Heusgen.
During the call, according to German officials, Rice insisted that Obama did not know about the monitoring of Merkel’s phone, and said it was not currently happening and would not in the future. But according to U.S. officials familiar with the call, Rice would not acknowledge that the monitoring had taken place, even though she did not dispute the evidence the Germans had provided to her, which stretched back into the administration of President George W. Bush.
If Rice’s contention that the president was unaware of the monitoring is correct, it raises the question of why he was not alerted — especially after tensions rose this year, following the first revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, about U.S. spying operations in Germany.
But the sentiment is particularly potent in the case of a country like Germany, which has been critical for a number of U.S. intelligence operations. The BND, Germany’s main intelligence agency, has pursued suspected terrorist cells and was critical to extracting information from an Iranian scientist whose computer hard drive revealed documents strongly suggesting that Iran was working on the design of a nuclear warhead. It played a supporting role in trying to cripple Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, through the use of a cyberweapon.
A spokesman for the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, declined to comment about any U.S. discussions with the Germans about the intelligence relationship between the two countries.