WASHINGTON — Joining a growing list of angry allies, France on Monday demanded an explanation from Washington of a report that the U.S. swept up 70 million French telephone records and text messages in its global surveillance net, even recording certain private conversations.
The fallout prompted a phone call from President Barack Obama to President Francois Hollande and, the White House said, an acknowledgment by Obama that the episode raises “legitimate questions for our friends and allies” about how U.S. surveillance capabilities are employed. Hollande’s office issued a strongly worded statement afterward expressing “profound reprobation” over U.S. actions that it said intruded on the private lives of French citizens.
Spying among friendly countries is classic tradecraft but the sweep and scope of the National Security Agency program have surprised allies and raised indignation among those targeted — Germany, Mexico and Brazil among them.
The report in Le Monde, co-written by Glenn Greenwald, who originally revealed the surveillance program based on leaks from former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, found that when certain phone numbers were used, conversations were automatically recorded. The surveillance operation also gathered text messages based on key words, Le Monde reported.
“This sort of practice between partners that invades privacy is totally unacceptable and we have to make sure, very quickly, that this no longer happens,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “We fully agree that we cooperate to fight terrorism. It is indispensable. But this does not justify that personal data of millions of our compatriots are snooped on.”
Seeking to limit damage in relations with one of America’s closest allies, Obama called Hollande late Monday and made clear the U.S. government is reviewing its intelligence-gathering “so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” a White House statement said. The statement said some recent disclosures have “distorted our activities” while others have raised genuine concerns by other countries.
Earlier, the French government summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin for answers. A statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Paris said Rivkin assured Alexandre Ziegler, chief of staff to Fabius, that “our ongoing bilateral consultations on allegations of information-gathering by U.S. government agencies would continue.”
The level of the diplomatic consultation at the time — between the U.S. ambassador and only an aide to Fabius — suggested that France was modulating its response. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Paris early Monday for meetings on Middle East issues and could have been contacted immediately if it appeared relations were in deeper trouble. But the matter was subsequently elevated with Obama’s phone call.
Hollande’s office said later that the French leader asked Obama to make available all information on NSA spying of French communications.
Kerry would not confirm the newspaper account or discuss intelligence-gathering except to say: “Lots of countries are engaged in the activity of trying to protect their citizens in the world.”
Le Monde reported that from Dec. 10, 2012 to Jan. 8 of this year, 70.3 million recordings of French citizens’ telephone data were made by the NSA. Intercepts peaked at almost 7 million in Dec. 24 and again on Jan. 7, the paper said. The targets were people with suspected links to terrorism and people chosen because of their roles in business, politics or the French government, the report said.
Former CIA officer Bob Baer, who was stationed in Paris for three years, said the French intelligence service regularly spies on Americans — both on U.S. diplomats and business people. The spying has included rifling through possessions of a diplomat, businessman or spy in Paris hotel rooms and installing listening devices in first-class seats of the now-defunct Concord aircraft to record Americans’ conversations, he said.
In another instance, a former French intelligence director stated that the spy agency compiled a detailed secret dossier of the proprietary proposals that U.S. and Soviet companies wrote to compete with a French company for a $1 billion contract to supply fighter jets to India.
But while corporate and spy- vs.-spy espionage may be common, the newspaper report indicated that French citizens were unwittingly drawn into U.S. surveillance, too.
Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, tried to broker a closer intelligence-sharing relationship with France, so the two would simply ask each other to explain political or economic policies directly instead of resorting to snooping.
“The U.S. is overwhelmed by cooperation by France on things like … terrorism and organized crime,” Blair said in an interview Monday. “It dwarfs the amount of time we spend on spying on each other. I’m hoping the day will come when both countries realize they have a lot more to be gained by working with each other, but we’re not quite there yet.”
The most recent documents cited by Le Monde, dated April 2013, indicated the NSA’s interest in communications linked to Wanadoo — once part of France Telecom — and Alcatel-Lucent, the French-American telecom company. One of the documents instructed analysts to draw not only from the electronic surveillance program, but also from another initiative dubbed Upstream, which allowed surveillance on undersea communications cables.
Snowden’s leaks exposing details of the U.S. global surveillance apparatus have sparked an international debate over the limits of American spying. The strongest objection has come from Brazil.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington over a dispute involving Brazil’s desire to question Snowden after information he leaked indicated that the U.S. intercepted Rousseff’s communications with aides, hacked the state-run oil company’s computer network and snagged data on emails and telephone calls flowing through Brazil .
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government canceled a Cold War-era surveillance agreement over reports that NSA snooping swept up communications in Europe.
“I can understand the anger in France,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. “You don’t do that among partners. You don’t do that among friends.”
Mexico has also expressed outrage about an alleged NSA program that the German newspaper Der Spiegel said accessed a domain linked to former Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his Cabinet. Also, a document from June 2012 indicated the NSA had read current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s emails before he was elected.
The U.S. is thought to avoid spying on its coalition of “‘Five Eye” partners — Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand — but considers other countries fair game.
The U.S. intelligence community has discussed bringing France into the Five Eyes alliance because of its close cooperation with U.S. troops and intelligence against al-Qaida in such as Afghanistan and Mali, according to two current U.S. intelligence officials. But the trust between both countries has never reached the level needed for that, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the relationship publicly.