'Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too': former French foreign minister on NSA spying claims
Bernard Kouchner, speaks during a press conference, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Lori Hinnant And John-Thor Dahlburg, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, October 23, 2013 1:53PM EDT
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- U.S. allies knew that the Americans were spying on them, but they had no idea how much.
As details of National Security Agency spying programs have become public through former contractor Edward Snowden, citizens, activists and politicians in countries from Latin America to Europe have lined up to express shock and outrage at the scope of Washington's spying.
But politicians are also using the threat to their citizens' privacy to drum up their numbers at the polls -- or to distract attention from their own domestic problems. Some have even downplayed the matter to keep good relations with Washington.
After a Paris newspaper reported the NSA hadj swept up 70.3 million French telephone records in a 30-day period, the French government called the U.S. ambassador in for an explanation and put the issue of personal data protection on the agenda of the European Union summit that opens Thursday.
"Why are these practices, as they're reported -- which remains to be clarified -- unacceptable? First because they are taking place between partners, between allies, and then because they clearly are an affront to private life," Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French government spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
But the official French position --that friendly nations should not spy on each another -- can't be taken literally, a former French foreign minister said.
"The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us," Bernard Kouchner said Tuesday in a radio interview. "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous. "
The French government, which until this week had been largely silent in the face of widespread U.S. snooping on its territory, may have other reasons to speak out now. The furor over the NSA managed to draw media attention away from France's controversial expulsion of a Roma family at a time when French President Francois Hollande's popularity is at a historic low. Just 23 per cent of French approve of the job he is doing, according to a recent poll.
In Germany, opposition politicians, the media and privacy activists have been vocal in their outrage over the U.S. eavesdropping -- but not Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has worked hard to contain the damage to U.S.-German relations and refrained from saying anything bad about the Americans.
Interior Ministry spokesman Jens Teschke said Wednesday the German government was still in talks with the Americans about the spying issue.
"(But) we have recognized that many of the allegations made by Mr. Snowden can't be substantiated, and on other issues that there was no mass surveillance of innocent citizens," he said.
Merkel has expressed surprise at the scope of U.S. data collection efforts but also said her country was "dependent" on co-operation with the American spy agencies. It was thanks to "tips from American sources," she said, that security services foiled an Islamic terror plot in 2007 that targeted U.S. soldiers and citizens in Germany.
Still, to fend off criticism by the opposition and the media, Merkel raised the electronic eavesdropping issue when President Barack Obama visited Germany in June, has demanded answers from the U.S. government, and backed calls for greater European data protection.
In Italy, major newspaper reported that a parliamentary committee was told during a visit to Washington that phone calls, emails and text messages of Italians had been intercepted. Premier Enrico Letta raised the topic of spying during a visit Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry. A senior State Department official said Kerry made it clear the Obama administration's goal was to strike the right balance between security needs and privacy expectations.
Few countries have responded as angrily to U.S. spying than Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff took the extremely rare diplomatic step of cancelling a visit to Washington where she had been scheduled to receive a full state dinner this week.
Analysts say her anger is genuine, though also politically profitable, for Rousseff faces a competitive re-election campaign next year. Her strong stance against the United States can only help her with the more left-wing elements of her ruling Workers Party.
David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, said since the Sept. 11 attacks it was "well known by Brazilian governments" that the Americans had stepped up spying efforts.
"But what the government did not know was that Dilma's office had been hacked as well, and this is what caused the outrage," Fleischer said.
Information the NSA collected in Mexico appears to have largely focused on drug-fighting policies or government personnel trends. But the U.S. agency also allegedly spied on the emails of two Mexican presidents, Enrique Pena Nieto, the incumbent, and Felipe Calderon.
The Mexican government has reacted cautiously to those revelations, calling the targeting of the presidents "unacceptable" yet its statements haven't been accompanied by any real action. Pena Nieto has demanded an investigation but hasn't cancelled any visits or contacts, a strategy that Mexico's opposition and some analysts see as weak and submissive.
"Other countries, like Brazil, have had responses that are much more resounding than our country," said Sen. Gabriela Cuevas of Mexico's conservative National Action Party.
Yet this is because of Mexico's much-closer economic and political ties to the United States, which the Mexican government apparently does not want to endanger.
Beyond politics, the NSA espionage has been greeted with relative equanimity in Mexico, whose people are long used to the government's extremely close intelligence co-operation with the United States in the war on drugs.
"The country we should really be spying on now is New Zealand, to see if we can get enough information so the national team can win a qualifying berth at the World Cup," Mexican columnist Guadalupe Loaeza wrote, referring to the Nov. 13 game between the two rivals.
Hinnant reported from Paris. AP writers Frank Jordans in Berlin, Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo, Mark Stevenson in Mexico City, Lara Jakes in Rome and Sylvie Corbet in Paris also contributed.