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German investigation says the NSA probably didn't tap Merkel's phone after all

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Over a year after an unidentified source released a document he said proved the NSA had tapped the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an investigation by Germany's top prosecutor has found no evidence that the tapping ever occurred. He says he also believes that the document may not even be authentic.

The US has long denied that spy agencies snooped on Merkel's cell phone. When the story first broke in October 2013, President Obama personally called Merkel to tell her it wasn't true. It was widely assumed that Obama was lying; it now appears, based on Germany's own investigation, that he may have been telling the truth.

It is not clear whether the document came from NSA leaker Edward Snowden. While the story came as Snowden was releasing a number of such documents about NSA programs abroad, the reports have not explicitly credited him with this story. (Some reports have claimed as much, but this is considered to still be disputed.)

In some ways, it won't matter if Germany's investigation concludes that the hacking story was false. It's not going to fix the widespread and growing anti-US sentiment among Germans, which was always about much more than Merkel's cell phone. The broader NSA hacking programs in Germany, collecting vast amounts of computer and telephone metadata, are real. And German anti-US sentiment go back years before the NSA scandal began, rooted in Cold War grievances and a sense of being bossed around by the Americans. That is what makes today's announcement by the German prosecutor particularly surprising: bashing the Americans makes for great politics in Germany.

At the same time, while it's true that last year's allegations of tapping Merkel's cell phone created a great deal of personal tension and mistrust between Merkel and Obama, that has since healed. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin's other aggressions, have forced Merkel and Obama into a close cooperation that appears to have overcome 2013's tensions. So they had already moved on from last year's awkwardness.

The narrative arc of Merkel's cell phone tap, from widely accepted truth to possibly debunked misapprehension, speaks to a larger problem with the recent NSA leaks. The problem was always that the documents were vague and complicated and left a lot of room for interpretation. The documents were complicated and interpreting them was not always easy. The US government, unsurprisingly, refused to help. And Snowden, for all his idealism and ethics, has been an imperfect interpreter of those documents himself, as have his allies. That has meant that sometimes "revelations" about NSA programs like the tap on Merkel's phone turn out to be wrong, or turn out to be different from how they were first described.

The hard truth is that the NSA doesn't print out and distribute company-wide documents that clearly state, with evidence, what it does and doesn't do. Rather, like any sprawling organization, it has a lot of documents that reference existing programs, or describe ambitions for future programs, or proposals, all of which can be vague and indirect. These are the documents Snowden had access to and released to the media. Some of the documents were old; many offered only part of the picture. So Snowden, his allies, and whoever was behind the Merkel story (if it was indeed a separate person) had to do a great deal of interpreting to figure out what, say, an old internal NSA training powerpoint tells them about actual on-the-ground NSA programs. That can be really difficult and it's possible to make honest mistakes.

That is why, years from now, many people will continue to believe that Obama personally tapped Merkel's phone, regardless of what evidence emerges. But it's also why another substantial set of people are increasingly rejecting the entirety of the NSA leaks as untrustworthy. But that latter group is wrong as well: for all Snowden's mistakes, the larger story of these leaks, of an NSA run amok, tapping into private data worldwide and with reckless abandon, is absolutely true. Even if the story of Merkel's cell phone, perhaps the most egregious of them all, was not.