Untangling The European NSA Spying Stories


German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande

The National Security Agency is currently embroiled into two possible scandals on the European continent, each with their own contours, but which have blended together into a common storyline in the United States. To casual observers, it’s hard to tell where one story ends and the other begins as the United States attempts to extract itself from the diplomatic furor that is currently engrossing its relationship with Europe.

At the core of one thread of the issue is that world leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that the United States has been targeting them specifically for surveillance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular is upset with the U.S. for allegedly monitoring her mobile phone’s calls, a fact that she became aware of after seeing her number listed in a leaked document. The Guardian later reported that an internal NSA document shows that, as of 2006, there were as many as 35 world leaders who had their communications regularly monitored. Though the document does not specify which countries’ leaders had been tapped, nor if the program is still ongoing, it has contributed to clouding the Obama administration’s relations both at home and overseas.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has taken particular umbrage at the revelation, issuing a harsh statement on Monday denouncing the practice of spying on allied leaders. “Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed,” the senator, who is normally a supporter of intelligence operations, wrote. “With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies—including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany—let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.” Intelligence officials have also sounded off to reporters, pushing back on reports that the White House was unaware of the practice as it was ongoing.

Concurrent to the news about foreign heads of state finding themselves under close watch, reports in French and Spanish newspapers claimed that NSA documents showed that metadata from their citizens’ phone calls was being swept up in American dragnets. Le Monde posted an NSA slide clearly labeled “France,” which it purportedly showed that the National Security Agency had collected information on more than 70 million phone calls in the period of just a month. Spanish newspaper El Mundo on Monday made similar claims, saying that the NSA had swept up 60 million calls worth of metadata.

The two both involve the National Security Agency, making it easy for them to merge together into one larger story on spying. But the two are actually quite separate, both in terms of the veracity of the claims and the possible impact that they will end up having. In terms of the latter, the original reporting appears to have been mistaken, if new reports from the Wall Street Journal are accurate. According to current intelligence officials, the Wall Street Journal says, the slides that El Mundo and Le Monde purport to show NSA spying on French and Spanish citizens actually show nothing of the sort. Instead, they claim, the slides detail metadata the European intelligence agencies collected in outside theaters to support NATO and other allied military action, which has been then shared with the NSA.

NSA Director Keith Alexander corroborated the broad outlines of the WSJ story during testimony before the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, saying that the original reports were “completely false.” While Alexander did indicate that collection against terror groups does occur on European networks, he insisted that the slides actually showed a webtool for data management purposes, claiming that the reporters who first broke the story “didn’t know what they were seeing.”

That still leaves the reports on spying on foreign leaders, which the White House has begrudgingly admited no longer exist — when it comes to Chancellor Merkel at least. As a result of the revelations, however, it seems that the president is prepared to order the NSA to end its eavesdropping on American allies all together, according to the New York Times. This doesn’t, however, necessitate the end of spycraft in these countries all together.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who joined Alexander on the Hill yesterday, dismissed the notion that the U.S. was in some way unique when it comes to such behavior. “Absolutely,” Clapper responded, when Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) asked if he knew of any U.S. allies who were conducting espionage against America. “As long as I’ve been in the intelligence business – 50 years – leadership intentions, in whatever form that’s expressed, is kind of a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze,” he continued.

Ubiquity doesn’t make for complacency from the subjects of spying, however, especially when it’s brought to the public view. Nor do European leaders have much of an interest in staying quiet. The United States is currently in the midst of a series of negotiations with the European Union that has the potential to result in a free-trade agreement between two of the largest economies on Earth, which the NSA revelations are now in danger of complicating. Those talks have been cited frequently among European parliamentarians, including those in the European Parliament, a delegation of whom will meet at the White House with Karen Donfried, the senior director for European affairs for the National Security Council on Wednesday.