WASHINGTON — The White House only slightly scrambled today to mop up the latest diplomatic crisis sparked by the National Security Agency’s surveillance of friendly foreign countries, as revealed by leaker Edward Snowden.
Le Monde cited documents handed over by Snowden in its article today claiming that U.S. intelligence intercepted some 70 million phone calls within France from Dec. 10, 2012, to Jan. 8, 2013.
It follows testy exchanges with spied-upon Germany, Brazil and Mexico. Last month, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled plans to visit Washington to meet with President Obama, angry about leaked NSA documents suggesting that she’s been a target of surveillance. White House press secretary Jay Carney tried to downplay the cancellation, saying President Obama “understands and regrets the concerns disclosures of alleged U.S. intelligence activities have generated in Brazil and made clear that he is committed to working together with President Rousseff and her government in diplomatic channels to move beyond this issue as a source of tension in our bilateral relationship.”
Carney said the new meeting date would be Oct. 23, but then in the next breath said they’d meet “at a date to be mutually agreed.” There is no meeting with Rousseff on Obama’s schedule for Wednesday.
The Brazilian president spent a good part of her UN General Assembly speech blasting the U.S. “In Brazil, the situation was even more serious since we, Brazil, feature as a target of such an intrusion. Citizens’ personal data and information have been indiscriminately targeted and intercepted. Business information, often times of high economic and even strategic value have been the target of spying activity,” Rousseff said last month. “…The problem, however, goes beyond the bilateral relations of two countries. It affects the international community itself and, as such, requires an answer from it.”
Today, Obama was forced to hop on the phone with French President Francois Hollande to attempt to make amends for the latest breach.
“According to the elements obtained by Le Monde, when a telephone number is used in France, it activates a signal which automatically triggers the recording of the call. Apparently this surveillance system also picks up SMS messages and their content using key words. Finally, the NSA apparently stores the history of the connections of each target – or the meta-data,” reads the English-language Le Monde article.
“One of the documents which Le Monde was able to consult notes that between 8 February and 8 March 2013, the NSA collected, throughout the world, 124.8 billion telephone data items and 97.1 billion computer data items. In Europe, only Germany and the United Kingdom exceed France in terms of numbers of interceptions.”
France quickly summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin to answer for the report.
“The American ambassador was received by the Quai d’Orsay’s chief of staff this morning. As the foreign minister indicated, we reminded him that such practices between partners are totally unacceptable and that he must assure us that they are no longer going on. We asked for a prompt and tangible response to our concerns,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexandre Giorgini told reporters.
Giorgini added that “as soon as the first revelations emerged, we proposed to our EU partners that our negotiations with the United States include a data-protection track.”
“At our request, a US-EU working group was therefore established in July. It has already met twice,” he said. “The European Council of October 24 and 25, which will largely be devoted to digital challenges, will deal with this issue at the highest level, among heads of state and government. The digital economy cannot function properly without an effective guarantee of personal data.”
Secretary of State John Kerry was in Paris today, but was focused on Middle East peace goals and didn’t break away to address the crisis with our Revolutionary War ally.
“Look, France is one of our oldest allies in the world, and I have a very close working relationship with [Foreign Minister] Laurent Fabius since the day I started this job on many issues, ranging from Syria to protecting the security of our citizens. And protecting the security of our citizens in today’s world is a very complicated, very challenging task, and it is an everyday, 24/7, 365 task, unfortunately, because there are lots of people out there seeking to do harm to other people. We see much more suicide bombs taking place in various parts of the world right now,” Kerry said at a press conference with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Atiyah before their meeting.
“So Ambassador Rivkin met today with Alexandre Ziegler, the cabinet director to Foreign Minister Fabius, at the request of the Government of France. And our ongoing – we will have ongoing bilateral consultations, including with our French partners, that address this question of any reports by the United States Government gathering information from some of the agencies, and those consultations are going to continue,” Kerry continued.
“Now, I’m not going to comment on the specifics. As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss intelligence matters,” said Kerry. “And lots of countries are engaged in the activity of trying to protect their citizens and the world. As the president – as President Obama said very clearly in a recent speech that he gave at the United Nations General Assembly just a few weeks ago, he said we in the United States are currently reviewing the way that we gather intelligence. And I think that’s appropriate. And our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens. And this work is going to continue, as well as our very consultations with our friends here in France.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed that Kerry was “focused on Middle East peace stuff.”
“I’m not speaking to any specific allegations or reports that are out there in the press about intelligence activities. Broadly speaking, there’s a balance that needs to be struck between security and privacy. The President has spoken to that, most recently at UNGA, and that’s the conversation we’re certainly having internally in the government, and are happy to have with our allies and partners around the world,” Harf said. “But I’m not speaking to the specific allegations in that report.”
When pressed on whether France had the right to be upset, she said, “I’m not going to talk about what other countries have the right to feel or not feel.”
“We’ve actually taken steps to be more transparent, both to our people but to other countries around the world. So I think that people do look at that as a positive step in the right direction,” Harf continued. “…I think people appreciate when the president or the secretary or other folks come out and say: I know there have been a lot of allegations out there. Here’s what we can say we’re doing, here’s how we’re looking at it. And when we have a path forward, we’ll let you know that as well.”
Harf didn’t know if Kerry had even reached out to the French side as he was wrapping up in his Arab Peace Initiative meetings.
“If issues of any kind arise, he, as you all know, is either happy to talk about them in person or over the phone with his counterparts, and certainly doesn’t want to let these kind of reports out there in the press hurt our efforts to work together on Syria, other issues that we work together with the French on, certainly,” she said. “He just happens to be there today, so I’m sure he’ll be having those discussions with them as well.”
The French Foreign Ministry confirmed “this topic will also be raised” when Fabius has Kerry’s ear on Tuesday.
“I am deeply shocked,” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters in Copenhagen. “…It’s incredible that an allied country like the United States at this points goes as far as spying on private communications that have no strategic justification, no justification on the basis of national defense.”
The relationship with France, though, has taken on greater strategic importance in the past few years as the republic led the air campaign to help oust Moammar Gadhafi, pushed al-Qaeda back in the Mali campaign and seemed poised to strike Bashar al-Assad in Syria first as the White House wavered.
“Obviously we have an enormously important and valuable relationship between the United States and France, one of our closest allies and certainly our longest ally,” Carney said today at the White House. “…I would remind you that the National Security Agency is a foreign intelligence agency. It is focused on discovering and developing information about valid foreign intelligence targets. Its activities are directed against these valid foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
In his call with Hollande, the White House said Obama and the French leader “discussed recent disclosures in the press – some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed.”
“The President made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” the readout of the call said. “The two Presidents agreed that we should continue to discuss these issues in diplomatic channels moving forward.”