WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama brushed aside sharp European criticism on Monday, suggesting that all nations spy on each other, as the French and Germans expressed outrage over alleged U.S. eavesdropping on European Union diplomats.
Obama, in an African news conference with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, said the U.S. would provide allies with information about new reports that the National Security Agency had bugged EU offices in Washington, New York and Brussels. But he also suggested such activity by governments would hardly be unusual.
“We should stipulate that every intelligence service – not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there’s an intelligence service – here’s one thing that they’re going to be doing: They’re going to be trying to understand the world better, and what’s going on in world capitals around the world,” he said. “If that weren’t the case, then there’d be no use for an intelligence service.”
The latest issue concerns allegations of U.S. spying on European officials in the German news weekly Der Spiegel. French President Francois Hollande on Monday demanded that the U.S. immediately stop any such eavesdropping and suggested the widening controversy could jeopardize next week’s opening of trans-Atlantic trade talks between the United States and Europe.
“We cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies,” Hollande said on French television.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin, “Eavesdropping on friends is unacceptable.” He declared, “We’re not in the Cold War anymore.”
Even before the latest disclosures, talks at the upcoming free-trade sessions were expected to be fragile, with disagreements surfacing over which items should be covered or excluded from an agreement. The United States has said there should be no exceptions. But France has called for exempting certain cultural products, and other Europeans do not appear eager to give up longtime agricultural subsidies.
Obama said the Europeans “are some of the closest allies that we have in the world.” But he added, “I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That’s how intelligence services operate.”
Nonetheless, Obama said he’d told his advisers to “evaluate everything that’s being claimed” and promised to share the results with allies.
In a sign of the distrust the latest report had revealed, the German government said it had launched a review of its secure government communications network and the EU’s executive, the European Commission, ordered “a comprehensive ad hoc security sweep.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he didn’t know the details of the allegations, but he still played them down, maintaining that many nations undertake various activities to protect their national interests. Kerry failed to quell the outrage from allies, including France, Germany and Italy.
A spokesman for Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, said, “The European Union has demanded and expects full and urgent clarification by the U.S. regarding the allegations.”
According to Der Spiegel’s report, which it said was partly based on information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who is holed up in a Moscow airport, NSA planted bugs in the EU’s diplomatic offices in Washington and infiltrated the building’s computer network. Similar measures were taken at the EU’s mission to the United Nations in New York, the magazine said.
It also reported that NSA used secure facilities at NATO headquarters in Brussels to dial into telephone maintenance systems that would have allowed it to intercept senior officials’ calls and Internet traffic at a key EU office nearby.