WikiLeaks has published documents it says show the US National Security Agency eavesdropped on the last three French presidents, prompting an emergency meeting of President Francois Hollande’s defence council, according to presidential aides.
The council, convening this morning, includes senior French security officials.
In a press release entitled Espionnage Élysée, WikiLeaks released material which appeared to capture officials in Paris talking candidly about Greece’s economy, relations with Germany — and, ironically, American espionage.
There was no instant confirmation of the accuracy of the documents released in collaboration with French daily newspaper Liberation and investigative website Mediapart, but WikiLeaks has a track record of publishing intelligence and diplomatic material.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said he was confident the documents were authentic, noting that WikiLeaks’ previous mass disclosures — including a large cache of Saudi diplomatic memos released last week — have proven to be accurate.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 23, 2015
WikiLeaks, on its website, listed the contents of what it said was five selected “top” intercepts of communications involving French presidents — on subjects including a senior UN appointment, the Middle East peace process, and the handling of the euro crisis — between 2006 and 2012.
The report also listed in a chart what were said to be phone numbers listed by the NSA as senior French official “intercept targets”, including that of the French president’s own mobile phone, with some digits crossed out.
The release caused an uproar among French politicians, although it did not reveal any huge surprises or secrets.
France is on the verge of approving broad new surveillance powers, and is among several US allies that rely heavily on American spying powers when trying to prevent terrorist and other threats.
Hollande’s office did not comment beyond announcing today’s security meeting, but his Socialist Party issued an angry statement saying the reports suggest “a truly stupefying state paranoia”.
The party said even if the government was aware of such intercepts, that did not mean “that this massive, systematic, uncontrolled eavesdropping is tolerable”.
French politicians posted messages on social media voicing their disgust with the reports.
Hollande said last year that he discussed his concerns about NSA surveillance with President Barack Obama during a visit to the US, and they patched up their differences.
An aide to Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy said the former president considers these methods unacceptable, especially from an ally. There was no immediate comment from former president Jacques Chirac, also reportedly targeted by the eavesdropping.
US National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the US is “not targeting and will not target the communications of President Hollande”.
He said: “We do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose.
“This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike. We work closely with France on all matters of international concern, and the French are indispensable partners.”
Price did not address claims that the US had previously eavesdropped on Hollande or his predecessors.
The WikiLeaks founder may be holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London but he is definitely aware.
In an online statement, Julian Assange said: “The French people have a right to know that their elected government is subject to hostile surveillance from a supposed ally. We are proud of our work with leading French publishers Liberation and Mediapart to bring this story to light.
“French readers can expect more timely and important revelations in the near future.”
Assange is currently refusing to be extradited to Sweden where he faces questioning over alleged sexual assault.
Ever since documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed in 2013 that the NSA had been eavesdropping on the mobile phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel, it had been understood that the US had been using the digital spying agency to intercept the conversations of allied politicians.
Obama ordered a wholesale review of NSA spying on allies, after officials suggested that senior White House officials had not approved many operations that were largely on autopilot.
Still, the new revelations are bound to cause diplomatic embarrassment for the Americans and there is also the question of France’s support for broad new surveillance powers.
Michele Alliot-Marie, a former defence and foreign affairs minister under Chirac and Sarkozy, told the iTele channel that France was aware that the US had the technical means to try to intercept conversations. “We are not naive: the conversations that took place between the defence ministry and the president did not happen on the telephone,” she said.
“That being said, it does raise the problem of the relationship of trust between allies.”