President Obama said the U.S. doesn't have a “no-spy” agreement with any country, though it works to protect the privacy rights of both Americans and people around the world as it conducts foreign surveillance.
Mr. Obama’s statement came during a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande, who is on an official visit to the U.S. A French reporter had just asked whether, given the positive sentiments about the two countries’ relationship from both leaders, France had overtaken Britain as the top U.S. ally and whether it would be afforded the same no-spy agreement.
“It's not actually correct to say that we have a, quote, unquote, ‘no-spy agreement’ with Great Britain. That's not actually what happens,” the president said. “There's no country where we have a no-spy agreement. We have, like every other country, an intelligence capability, and then we have a range of partnerships with all kinds of countries, and we've been in consultations with the French government to deepen those commitments.”
CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate said the president’s description could put the U.S. in an tough spot.
“Of course we have tacit agreements not to spy on some of our allies. The administration now finds itself in an uncomfortable position of having to explain who’s in and who’s out,” Zarate said.
Hollande, for his part, appears to be satisfied with the conversations we had with Mr. Obama in the wake of revelations that the U.S. had collected French telephone records as part of its surveillance.
“Mutual trust has been restored,” Hollande said in French, stressing the two countries have committed to working together to fight terrorism.
As for the matter of the top U.S. ally, Mr. Obama jokingly likened the two countries to his daughters, Sasha and Malia.
“I have two daughters and they are both gorgeous and wonderful and I would never choose between them and that’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways,” he said.
And Hollande: “We’re not trying to be anyone’s favorite.”
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But the visit has undoubtedly sought to display the renewed friendship between the two nations, which grew chilly during George W. Bush’s presidency over France’s opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In his opening remarks. Mr. Obama said the level of cooperation “would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.”
He also accepted Hollande’s invitation to visit France in June to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
The press conference covered both foreign policy and economic issues, where the two leaders are largely in sync. Pressed on what more the U.S. could do about the bloody civil war inside Syria – where peace talks between President Bashar Assad and the U.S.-backed opposition appear to be going nowhere – Mr. Obama said the international community needs to convince Assad’s allies that there was little to gain by continuing the fighting.
“The state of Syria itself is crumbling,” Mr. Obama said. “We are going to continue to commit to not just pressure the Assad regime but also to get countries like Russia and Iran to recognize it is in nobody’s interests to see the continuing bloodshed and collapse.”
The president said there is “enormous frustration” with the stalled peace talks.
France and the United States have acted in lockstep on the Syria issue. When the British parliament blocked any military action against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, it was the French government that prepared to strike if necessary. And when Mr. Obama – who backed the use of force in response to the chemical weapons attack – put the issue before the U.S. Congress, France waited for a decision before acting.
They are also two of the six nations involved in peace talks to end Iran’s nuclear program, which is currently on a six-month freeze in return for limited sanctions relief as the countries begin negotiations over a long-term deal.
Although there has been only a slight easing of sanctions, a group of French businesses visited Tehran last week to assess conditions there, a move thatdrew a rebuke from Secretary of State John Kerry. During Tuesday’s press conference, Mr. Obama threatened to “come down on them like a ton of bricks,” if they violate the interim deal.
“We have been extraordinarily firm that even during this interim agreement, we will fully enforce all applicable sanctions. In fact we have taken various steps just over the last six, seven weeks to identify companies that we felt were violating those sanctions and have been very clear to the Iranians that there’s not going to be any letup,” Mr. Obama said.
Hollande agreed that sanctions “will only be lifted if and when there is a definite agreement,” but also said there was nothing he could do to control the companies’ business travel.
The president was also asked about a decision yesterday to give small businesses an extra year to comply with an Obamacare mandate. He said the rule affects just a small percentage of businesses and was intended to help them comply with the law.
“It may take them some time even if they’re operating in good faith, we want to make sure that the purpose of the law is not to punish them, it is to make sure that they are either providing health insurance to their employees or they are helping to bear the cost of their employees getting health insurance,” he said.