Lara Jakes and Frank Jordans
WASHINGTON: The Obama administration faced a breakdown in confidence Sunday from key foreign allies who threatened investigations and sanctions against the United States over secret surveillance programs that reportedly installed covert listening devices in European Union offices.
U.S. intelligence officials said they will directly discuss with EU officials the new allegations, reported in Sunday’s editions of the German news weekly Der Spiegel. But the former head of the CIA and National Security Agency urged the White House to make the spy programs more transparent to calm public fears about the American government’s snooping.
It was the latest backlash in a nearly monthlong global debate over the reach of U.S. surveillance that aims to prevent terrorist attacks. The two programs, both run by the NSA, pick up millions of telephone and Internet records that are routed through American networks each day. They have raised sharp concerns about whether they violate public privacy rights at home and abroad.
Several European officials — including in Germany, Italy, France, Luxembourg and the EU government itself — said the new revelations could scuttle ongoing negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty that, ultimately, seeks to create jobs and boost commerce by billions annually in what would be the world’s largest free trade area.
“Partners do not spy on each other,” said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. “We cannot negotiate over a big trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators. The American authorities should eliminate any such doubt swiftly.”
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he was “deeply worried and shocked about the allegations of U.S. authorities spying on EU offices.” And Luxembourg Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Jean Asselborn said he had no reason to doubt the Der Spiegel report and rejected the notion that security concerns trump the broad U.S. surveillance authorities.
“We have to re-establish immediately confidence on the highest level of the European Union and the United States,” Asselborn said.
According to Der Spiegel, the 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 the 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.
The Spiegel report cited classified U.S. documents taken by NSA leaker and former contractor Edward Snowden that the magazine said it had partly seen. It did not publish the alleged NSA documents it cited nor say how it obtained access to them. But one of the report’s authors is Laura Poitras, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who interviewed Snowden while he was holed up in Hong Kong.
Britain’s The Guardian newspaper also published an article Sunday alleging NSA surveillance of the EU offices, citing classified documents provided by Snowden.
Snowden, 30, revealed himself as the document leaker in June interviews in Hong Kong, but fled to Russia before China’s government could turn him over to U.S. officials. Snowden is now believed to be holed up in a transit zone in Moscow’s international airport, where Russian officials say they have no authority to catch him since he technically has not crossed immigration borders.