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.