BRUSSELS—Senior European politicians demanded explanations from Washington of allegations that the National Security Agency spied on European Union institutions, risking a corrosion of trust as the EU and U.S. embark on negotiations over a free-trade accord.
The German weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported over the weekend that the U.S. placed listening devices in EU offices in Washington, infiltrated computers there and electronically spied on EU bodies elsewhere. It cited secret documents obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as the basis for its report.
A former NSA base in Germany. A German politician criticized allegations the U.S. spied on European officials.
The allegations come at a sensitive time. The EU in June gave the go-ahead for the start of trade negotiations with the U.S., which are likely to start soon. Though the talks are expected to take at least two years, the European Parliament, where many lawmakers are highly sensitive to privacy issues, will need to approve any accord.
“Partners do not spy on each other,” EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said at a public forum in Luxembourg. “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.”
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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country had formally requested clarification from Washington. “These facts, if confirmed, would be absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
Germany’s Justice Ministry also called for the U.S. to clarify the matter, and for European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to act. “If the media reports are true, it’s reminiscent of the approaches of enemies during the Cold War. It’s beyond any stretch of the imagination that our friends in the U.S.A. see the Europeans as enemies,” German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in a statement.
“Comprehensive spying by the Americans on Europeans cannot be allowed,” she said, adding that it is unlikely the U.S. could justify bugging European diplomacy offices as part of the global fight on terrorism.
The European External Action Service, the foreign policy arm of the EU whose premises were an alleged target of U.S. surveillance, said the issue “is clearly a matter of concern.” It said the U.S. authorities “have told us they are checking on the accuracy of the information…and will come back to us as soon as possible.”
The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the U.S. is responding to the European Union privately about the allegations.
The U. S. “will respond appropriately to the European Union through our diplomatic channels,” the office said. “We will also discuss these issues bilaterally with EU member states.”
The office’s statement didn’t address the specific allegations but said, “We have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”
In a separate report Sunday, the Guardian newspaper in Britain said an NSA document lists 38 embassies and missions as “targets” for the agency’s spying, among them the French, Italian and Greek embassies. The article cited information leaked by Mr. Snowden as it source.
The allegations are the latest to emerge in U.S. and European media about surveillance activities by the U.S. and its closest allies based on Mr. Snowden’s disclosures. Mr. Snowden is at a Moscow airport, arriving there from Hong Kong in a bid to travel to Ecuador, where he has applied for political asylum.
The lead author of Der Spiegel’s report was Laura Poitras, an American documentary filmmaker who created a video interview with Mr. Snowden, distributed online, in which he described why he released information from some of the NSA documents.
Ms. Poitras also was co-author of an article in the Washington Post, based on Mr. Snowden’s leaks, about an NSA program to gain access to U.S. Internet companies’ computers in an effort to track online activities of foreigners suspected in terrorist activity.
Julian Assange, founder of the antisecrecy site WikiLeaks, said Sunday there would be no halting future disclosures from Mr. Snowden. “Look, there is no stopping the publishing process at this stage. Great care has been taken to make sure that Mr. Snowden can’t be pressured by any state to stop the publication process,” he said in an interview with the ABC network from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is seeking refuge.
According to intelligence specialists, the activities alleged in Der Spiegel’s report are similar to previously reported spying efforts among friendly countries. While allies have no intention of attacking one another, they seek information on decision-making within each other’s governments, and as a way to tell whether those governments might be spying on them.
The NSA raised concerns in 2006 about the merger of French-owned phone-equipment company Alcatel with U.S.-based Lucent because U.S. officials feared the deal would provide the French extraordinary access to U.S. telecommunications systems.
The NSA raised similar issues more recently over Chinese telecom-gear company Huawei Technologies’ efforts to expand in the U.S.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said in a statement he was “deeply worried and shocked about the allegations of U.S. authorities spying on EU offices.”
The statement added: “If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-U.S. relations…on behalf of the European Parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the U.S. authorities with regard to these allegations.”
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the allegations.
According to Der Spiegel, an NSA document dated September 2010 showed that the Washington embassy of the European Union was bugged and its computer network infiltrated. Similar measures were taken at the European mission to the United Nations in New York. The document described the Europeans as “targets.”
In addition, the U.S. bugged EU conversations in Brussels, spying on theJustus Lipsius building, headquarters of the Council of the European Union, according to the report.
The magazine reported that the NSA saves information on about a half billion phone or Internet connections from Germany every year through its “Boundless Informant” program.
Only a few countries labeled as close friends by the NSA are largely exempt from its monitoring: the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the magazine said. An additional 30 countries are classified as “third party,” with an internal NSA presentation saying the agency is able to intercept signals from these countries and often does, Der Spiegel reported.
The controversy over the new allegations is reminiscent of the furor ignited in Europe in 2000 by disclosures about the NSA’s so-called Echelon project, which included commercial organizations among its alleged targets, prompting an investigation and report from the European Parliament.
The report drew a distinction between spying for national-security reasons and for commercial advantage, saying the latter could breach EU law.
European lawmakers have also expressed disquiet about the sharing of European financial data with U.S. authorities.
The reports about the NSA’s alleged activities already have prompted Ms. Reding, the EU justice commissioner, to organize, together with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a panel of experts to find out how much data about Europeans was shared.
—Stacy Meichtry in Paris and Siobhan Gorman in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Stephen Fidler at firstname.lastname@example.org, Frances Robinson at email@example.com and Laura Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared July 1, 2013, on page A4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Officials Slam Alleged NSA Spying on the EU.
Updated June 30, 2013, 7:26 p.m. ET
By STEPHEN FIDLER, FRANCES ROBINSON and LAURA STEVENS
Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.