What's a Little Spying Between Friends?

What's a Little Spying Between Friends?
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I see England, I see France. I see someone’s underpants.

That was not what President Obama said in the East Room during an hour-long news conference Tuesday with François Hollande, the president of France.

But the children’s rhyme came to mind as I sat beneath the crystal chandeliers, listening to Obama  liken his neutrality in the rivalry between France and the United Kingdom to his parental affection for his two offspring. He went on to assure a Le Figaro reporter the United States does indeed peek in at both European partners -- spies, in fact, on all countries -- but with an even-handedness he seemed pleased to describe.

“There's no country where we have a no-spy agreement,” the president corrected, challenging the journalist’s suggestion that America agreed to a hands-off pact, as she phrased it, “with England after the big scandal of the NSA surveillance program.”

“That's not actually what happens,” Obama explained, as Hollande listened intently through the simultaneous translation. “We have, like every other country, you know, an intelligence capability, and then we have a range of partnerships with all kinds of countries.”

That intelligence capability means the National Security Agency will continue to spy on allied governments, but has ceased its snooping on the personal communications of certain heads of state, Obama said during a Jan. 17 speech about policy changes made in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks.

Whether Hollande and Prime Minister David Cameron, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, feel more secure while conversing on their private cellphones since Obama announced his changes is unclear, considering the NSA still snoops on the aides, dignitaries and perhaps the close friends who may be on the other end.

Hollande -- who left behind a messy private life before the state visit to the United States -- insisted the flap over America’s intelligence gathering in France was “in the past,” smoothed over, he said, after the two men “clarified things.”

With a quip that he’s a parent to four children (among whom he, too, could never play favorites), Hollande said the point, after ironing things out, was that the two countries “endeavored towards cooperation.”

“Mutual trust has been restored,” he said in French, “and that mutual trust must be based on respect for each other's country, but also based on protection -- protection of private life, of personal data, the fact that any individual, in spite of technological progress, can be sure that he's not being spied on. These are principles that unite us.”

Obama let Hollande’s remarks hang in the air, calling next on National Public Radio for a question about the embattled Affordable Care Act and the latest implementation fixes issued Monday. In the space of a second, Obama pivoted from tamping down international contretemps to ironing wrinkles in a signature domestic achievement. That quickly, the larger challenges of his second term were there.

“This was an example of, administratively, us making sure that we're smoothing out this transition,” he said of the effort to give employers more time to adjust to the health law. “There are going to be circumstances in which people are trying to do the right thing, and it may take a little bit of time.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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