Spain and France’s intelligence agencies carried out collection of phone records and shared them with NSA, agency says
European intelligence agencies and not American spies were responsible for the mass collection of phone records which sparked outrage in France and Spain, the US has claimed.
General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, said reports that the US had collected millions of Spanish and French phone records were “absolutely false”.
“To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens,” Gen Alexander said when asked about the reports, which were based on classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor.
Shortly before the NSA chief appeared before a Congressional committee, US officials briefed the Wall Street Journal that in fact Spain and France’s own intelligence agencies had carried out the surveillance and then shared their findings with the NSA.
The anonymous officials claimed that the monitored calls were not even made within Spanish and French borders and could be surveillance carried on outside of Europe.
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In an aggressive rebuttal of the reports in the French paper Le Monde and the Spanish El Mundo, Gen Alexander said “they and the person who stole the classified data [Mr Snowden] do not understand what they were looking at” when they published slides from an NSA document.
The US push back came as President Barack Obama was said to be on the verge of ordering a halt to spying on the heads of allied governments.
The White House said it was looking at all US spy activities in the wake of leaks by Mr Snowden but was putting a “special emphasis on whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state”.
Mr Obama was reported to have already halted eavesdropping at UN’s headquarters in New York.
German officials said that while the White House’s public statements had become more conciliatory there remained deep wariness and that little progress had been made behind closed doors in formalising an American commitment to curb spying.
“An agreement that you feel might be broken at any time is not worth very much,” one diplomat told The Telegraph.
“We need to re-establish trust and then come to some kind of understanding comparable to the [no spy agreement] the US has with other English speaking countries.”
Despite the relatively close US-German relations, the White House is reluctant to be drawn into any formal agreement and especially resistant to demands that a no-spy deal be expanded to cover all 28 EU member states.
Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission and EU justice commissioner, warned that the spying row could spill over and damage talks on a free-trade agreement between the EU and US.
“Friends and partners do not spy on each other,” she said in a speech in Washington. “For ambitious and complex negotiations to succeed there needs to be trust among the negotiating partners. It is urgent and essential that our US partners take clear action to rebuild trust.”
A spokesman for the US trade negotiators said it would be “unfortunate to let these issues – however important – distract us” from reaching a deal vital to freeing up transatlantic trade worth $3.3 billion dollars (£2bn) a day.
James Clapper, America’s top national intelligence, told a Congressional hearing yesterday the US does not “spy indiscriminately on the citizens of any country”.
“We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes, and we only work within the law,” Mr Clapper said. “To be sure on occasions we’ve made mistakes, some quite significant, but these are usually caused by human error or technical problems.”
Pressure from European leaders was added to as some of the US intelligence community’s key Congressional allies balked at the scale of surveillance on friendly governments.
Dianne Feinstein, the chair of powerful Senate intelligence committee, said she was “totally opposed” to tapping allied leaders and called for a wide-ranging Senate review of the activities of US spy agencies.
“I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” she said.
John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house and a traditional hawk on national security, said US spy policy was “imbalanced” and backed calls for a review.
Mr Boehner has previously been a staunch advocate of the NSA and faced down a July rebellion by libertarian Republicans who tried to pass a law significantly curbing the agency’s power.
By Raf Sanchez, Peter Foster in Washington
8:35PM GMT 29 Oct 2013
Find this story at 29 October 2013
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