File Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron with US President Barack Obama. (Associated Press)
Growing fears about the specter of terrorism in Europe and the West are lending themselves to a sense of trans-Atlantic solidarity as US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron meet at the White House.
Close and easy partners, Mr Obama and Mr Cameron have long touted their congenial relationship as a sign of the strong alliance between the US and the UK. During two days of meetings in Washington, the two are aiming to promote economic growth and global trade even as trickier issues like Islamic extremism and cyber-security take over much of the agenda.
In conjunction with the visit, the two leaders are announcing plans to hold joint cyber "war games," starting later this year with a mock attack on banks.
Mr Cameron arrived at the White House on Thursday evening, and after being greeted by Mr Obama in the Oval Office, the two sat down for a working dinner of herb-encrusted lamb and pickled wild mushrooms, with warm pear cake for dessert. Today, they were to hold a more formal meeting in the Oval Office before taking questions from the American and British press.
Their meeting comes as both the US and Europe are on edge over last week's terrorist attacks in France, where 17 people were slain in attacks spurred by a satirical newspaper's caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. Fears of additional attacks by Islamic extremists only grew on Thursday when police in Belgium killed two suspects during an anti-terror raid launched to pre-empt what officials called a major impending attack.
"The terrorists know only how to destroy, but together we can do something infinitely more powerful: build security, strengthen justice and advance peace," Mr Obama and Mr Cameron wrote in The Times of London in a joint editorial ahead of their visit. "The United States and Britain will continue to work closely with all those who believe in peace and tolerance."
Yet the issue of cyber-security, freshly relevant in the wake of a hack attack on Sony blamed on North Korea, threatened to test the ability of the two leaders to display a united front.
Ahead of the visit, Mr Cameron announced that the US and UK will stage cyber "war games" together and launch a joint "cyber cell," where officials from the FBI and the National Security Agency will team up with Britain's GCHQ and MI5 intelligence and security agencies to share information on cyber threats. The first round of war games, scheduled for later this year, will simulate an attack on banks and the financial sectors in London and New York, with more exercises to follow later to test the resilience of national infrastructure.
"This is about pooling our effort so we stay one step ahead of those who seek to attack us," Mr Cameron said.
But on the related issue of encryption, Mr Cameron was coming to the White House with a request in hand. He has said he plans to ask President Obama to press US technology companies like Google and Facebook to allow governments to snoop on encrypted communications.
Such notions hit a nerve in the US, where Mr Obama was forced to order changes to US intelligence collection practices after widespread outrage at revelations that the NSA was scooping up phone records of millions of Americans. Disclosures by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden also showed that several US Internet businesses identified were giving NSA access to customer data.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest wouldn't say whether Mr Obama would support a government "backdoor" to get around encryption and allow authorities to monitor communications that might be helpful to protect national security, but said the issue would surely come up in Mr Obama's meeting with Mr Cameron.
"I think our British counterparts would agree that it is imperative that we properly balance the need for government, intelligence agencies and national security agencies to access to certain kinds of information to try to protect their citizens," Earnest said.
Mr Cameron, who faces a difficult re-election later this year, has sought to use his visit with Mr Obama to showcase his close partnership with the US President. In 2012, amid his own re-election campaign, Mr Obama hosted Mr Cameron at the White House for an official state dinner.