The Obama administration faced a breakdown in confidence yesterday from key foreign allies over secret surveillance programmes that reportedly installed covert listening devices in EU offices.
They threatened investigations and sanctions against the US, in the latest backlash in the global debate over the reach of US surveillance that aims to prevent terror attacks.
US intelligence officials said they will discuss with EU officials the new allegations, reported in yesterday’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 programmes more transparent to calm public fears about the American government’s snooping.
The two programmes, both run by the NSA, pick up millions of telephone and Internet records that are routed through American networks each day. They have raised 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 negotiations on a transatlantic 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 transatlantic 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 US authorities spying on EU offices”.
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 US documents taken by NSA leaker and former contractor Edward Snowden that the magazine said it had partly seen.
In Washington, the national intelligence director’s office said US officials planned to respond to the concerns with their EU counterparts and through diplomatic channels with specific nations.
However, “as a matter of policy, we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” its statement concluded.
Some European counties have much stronger privacy laws than the US. In Germany, where criticism of the NSA’s surveillance programmes has been particularly vocal, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger likened the spying outlined in the Der Spiegel report to “methods used by enemies during the Cold War”.
German prosecutors are examining whether the reported US electronic surveillance programmes broke German laws.
Mr Snowden, who tuned 30 last week, revealed himself as the document leaker in interviews in Hong Kong last month, but fled to Russia before China’s government could turn him over to US officials.
He 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.
It is believed Mr Snowden is seeking political asylum from Ecuador. But Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa signalled yesterday that it is unlikely Mr Snowden will end up there.
Mr Correa portrayed Russia as entirely the masters of Mr Snowden’s fate, and the Kremlin said it will take public opinion and the views of human rights activists into account when considering his case.