U.S. spying on Merkel sparks scorn and bugged-phone jokes in Germany

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels October 25, 2013. European Union lawmakers will seek a response from U.S. administration and intelligence officials next week to accusations of widespread spying on EU citizens and governments, including Merkel. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS) (REUTERS)

BERLIN - Henry Kissinger once famously quipped that he wished he had a single telephone number for Europe. Apparently, the National Security Agency’s creative solution to the problem was to make it unnecessary to call at all.

This week, revelations that the NSA had tapped German chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone sparked a major diplomatic kerfuffle, spurring Merkel to call President Barack Obama to demand an explanation as Berlin summoned the American ambassador to lodge a formal protest.

As the alleged U.S. spying continued to make waves on both sides of the Atlantic on Friday, the affair was also spawning a plethora of bugged-phone jokes and general derision in Germany.

Though Obama has been getting his share of the ridicule, much scorn is being directed at Merkel and her apparent outrage over the breach of privacy. That’s because many Germans feel Merkel too blithely put aside concerns about widespread NSA surveillance, largely giving Obama a free pass on the matter during his visit to Berlin in June.

“When an entire population is spied upon, it’s OK. Only when Merkel’s cell is involved does anyone get upset,” said business consultant Philipp Ritz.

Like many Germans, Ritz expressed his contempt on the online message service Twitter, where the use of the hashtag #merkelphone has surged in recent days.

While some mocked the chancellor’s well-known fondness for sending text messages, others took aim at Merkel’s old-school cell phone. “And the chancellor is even using the most modern wireless technology,” wrote one sarcastic Twitter user above an old black-and-white photo of the German leader with a gigantic mobile.

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By late Thursday, the chancellor’s cell even had its own Twitter account.

Drew Portnoy , an American comic in Berlin who does standup in both English and German, said he couldn’t wait to weave the phone affair into his set.

“I was already using the NSA spying to rip on how Americans can’t really speak foreign languages, but the Merkel phone stuff is just ripe for ridicule,” he told Yahoo News. “Like how Obama stops reading the NSA transcript of Merkel’s phone when she starts sexting with [British Prime Minister] David Cameron.”

Merkel apparently opened herself up to American snooping by using an old Nokia phone rather than her official encrypted mobile because it was too slow and complicated, the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on Friday.

“She prefers simple things,” a government source told the newspaper. “She can’t stand slow.”

But the likely dull nature of most of the chancellor’s private conversations has not been lost on even Merkel, who is known for her reserved demeanor and low-key lifestyle.

Attending a European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday, Merkel seemed to wonder why anyone would even want to listen to her phone calls.

“Basically, everybody always hears the same thing from me,” she told reporters.