The spat over U.S. spying on Germany grew over the weekend following reports the National Security Agency has been monitoring the phone calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel since as early as 2002, before she even came to office. The NSA also spied on Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, after he refused to support the Iraq War. NSA staffers working out of the U.S. embassy in Berlin reportedly sent their findings directly to the White House. The German tabloid Bild also reports President Obama was made aware of Merkel’s phone tap in 2010, contradicting his apparent claim to her last week that he would have stopped the spying had he known. The White House initially refused to comment on the report, but later in the day the NSA denied the claim Obama had been briefed.
In another new disclosure, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reports today the National Security Agency tracked more than 60 million calls in Spain over the course of a month last year. The U.S. ambassador to Spain, James Costos, has been summoned to the Spanish Foreign Ministry today in response. A delegation of German and French lawmakers are now in Washington to press for answers on the allegations of U.S. spying in their home countries. On Friday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged U.S. surveillance has damaged foreign relations and is now under review.
Jen Psaki: “The president has directed us to review, directed the government to review our surveillance capabilities, including with respect to our foreign partners. We want to ensure we’re collecting information because we need it and not just because we can. There is no question that — that the disclosure of classified information has become — has posed a moment of tension with some of our allies. We’re having discussions with those allies.”
Thousands of people marched in Washington, D.C., on Saturday in a protest against government surveillance. “Stop Watching Us: Rally Against Mass Surveillance” was organized by a coalition of more than 100 groups, companies and public figures. Organizers say the protest was the largest to date against government surveillance since Edward Snowden’s disclosures became public in June.
Michael Greene: “I’m outraged, like most people here, at the mass surveillance that’s going on, and people just don’t seem to be upset about it. It’s blatantly unconstitutional.”
Jennifer Wynne: “Over the past several months, we the people have learned so much about the abuses going on and the complete lack of oversight and the mass surveillance into every detail of our lives. And we need to tell Congress that they have to act, and we need to demand it.”
Syria has submitted a formal declaration of its chemical weapons arsenal and the plans it has in place to destroy it. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it received the briefing three days ahead of schedule and will respond next month. Syria faces a deadline to abolish its chemical stockpile by the middle of next year.
In other Syria news, armed rebel groups are refusing to attend the upcoming peace summit in Geneva. In a joint statement, 19 opposition factions said negotiating with the regime of Bashar al-Assad would amount to an act of “treason.” The U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is visiting Damascus today in a bid to drum up support for the Geneva talks. In an interview ahead of his trip, Brahimi called for the inclusion of Iran in negotiations.
Lakhdar Brahimi: “The U.N. secretary-general, as well as the Arab League secretary-general and also me, we all believe that the participation of Iran in the Geneva conference is natural and is necessary, as well as fruitful. So we are hopeful that this invitation is made to Iran.”
At least 66 people were killed Sunday in more than a dozen bombings across Iraq. The latest violence comes ahead of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Washington this week. Maliki is seeking speedier delivery of U.S. weaponry, including drones and F-16 jets.
The Obama administration is asking Congress to hold off on new sanctions against Iran. At a White House meeting, top officials asked for the continued delay of a Senate Banking Committee measure targeting Iranian oil. The administration wants to stall the new sanctions pending the outcome of ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview with Voice of America, the lead U.S. negotiator on Iran, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said she expects Congress to back a sanctions pause.
Wendy Sherman: “We think that this is a time for a pause, to see if these negotiations can gain traction. The Congress has its prerogatives. We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. I think they have been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation. We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”
A new round of talks is set for next month in Geneva. Despite the White House call, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have expressed support for holding a sanctions vote by the end of the week.
Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia took to the road over the weekend in defiance of the nation’s ban on female drivers. It was the latest action in a multi-year campaign in which Saudi women openly flout the ban and upload video of themselves behind the wheel. Organizers say some participants were intimidated into staying home after warnings from the Saudi Interior Ministry.
Thousands of people marched in Moscow on Sunday in a call for the release of activists detained in an opposition rally last year. More than two dozen critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin have been kept behind bars over their roles in a protest that turned violent on the eve of Putin’s inauguration.
The Colombian rebel group FARC has freed a former U.S. marine held in captivity since June. Kevin Scott Sutay was seized while trekking through the Colombian jungle on a solo backpacking trip.
Demolition has begun of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, site of last year’s gun rampage that left 20 children and six adults dead. Newtown officials say they intend to complete the demolition before the massacre’s first anniversary in December.
In one of the latest deadly shootings nationwide, five people died in Phoenix over the weekend after a gunman shot four members of his family and then turned the gun on himself.
President Obama appeared at a high school in Brooklyn, New York, on Friday to promote federal spending on education. Obama called funding for schools and infrastructure an obvious priority for the next budget.
President Obama: “A budget that cuts what we don’t need closes wasteful tax loopholes that don’t create jobs, freeing up resources to invest in the things that actually do help us grow, things like education and scientific research and infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports. This should not be an ideological exercise. We should use some common sense. What’s going to help us grow? What’s going to create jobs? What is going to expand our middle class? What’s going to give more opportunity to young people? Those are the things we should be putting money into.”
Internal records show North Dakota has kept silent on scores of oil spills over the past two years. According to the Associated Press, North Dakota has recorded nearly 300 oil spills since January 2012, but none have been publicly disclosed. It took 11 days before North Dakota just recently announced the Tesoro oil spill that dumped more than 20,000 barrels of crude. North Dakota is the nation’s second largest oil producer, with more than 17,500 miles of pipelines.
The musician Lou Reed has died. A legend of the New York rock scene, Reed co-founded The Velvet Underground before going on to a prolific solo career. In his later years, he took part in civil rights and environmental activism along with his wife, the musician and artist Laurie Anderson. In one of his final public appearances last month, Reed discussed the power of music to effect change.
Lou Reed: “There’s only one great occupation that can change the world, that’s real rock 'n' roll. I believe to the bottom of my heart, the last cell, that rock 'n' roll can change everything. And I’m a graduate of Warhol University, and I believe in the power of punk. To this day, I want to blow it up. Thank you.”