WASHINGTON — Joining a growing list of angry allies, France on Monday demanded an explanation from Washington of a report that the U.S. swept up 70 million French telephone records and text messages in its global surveillance net, even recording certain private conversations.
The fallout prompted a phone call from President Barack Obama to President Francois Hollande and, the White House said, an acknowledgment by Obama that the episode raises “legitimate questions for our friends and allies” about how U.S. surveillance capabilities are employed. Hollande’s office issued a strongly worded statement afterward expressing “profound reprobation” over U.S. actions that it said intruded on the private lives of French citizens.
Spying among friendly countries is classic tradecraft but the sweep and scope of the National Security Agency program have surprised allies and raised indignation among those targeted — Germany, Mexico and Brazil among them.
The report in Le Monde, co-written by Glenn Greenwald, who originally revealed the surveillance program based on leaks from former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, found that when certain phone numbers were used, conversations were automatically recorded. The surveillance operation also gathered text messages based on key words, Le Monde reported.
“This sort of practice between partners that invades privacy is totally unacceptable and we have to make sure, very quickly, that this no longer happens,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “We fully agree that we cooperate to fight terrorism. It is indispensable. But this does not justify that personal data of millions of our compatriots are snooped on.”
Seeking to limit the damage, Obama called Hollande late Monday and made clear the U.S. government is reviewing its intelligence-gathering “so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” a White House statement said. The statement said some recent disclosures have “distorted our activities” while others have raised genuine concerns by other countries.
Earlier, the French government summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin for answers. A statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Paris said Rivkin assured Alexandre Ziegler, chief of staff to Fabius, that “our ongoing bilateral consultations on allegations of information-gathering by U.S. government agencies would continue.”
The level of the diplomatic consultation at the time — between the U.S. ambassador and only an aide to Fabius — suggested that France was modulating its response. But the matter was elevated with Obama’s phone call.
Hollande’s office said later that the French leader asked Obama to make available all information on NSA spying of French communications.
Le Monde reported that from Dec. 10, 2012 to Jan. 8 of this year, 70.3 million recordings of French citizens’ telephone data were made by the NSA. Intercepts peaked at almost 7 million in Dec. 24 and again on Jan. 7, the paper said. The targets were people with suspected links to terrorism and people chosen because of their roles in business, politics or the French government, the report said.
Former CIA officer Bob Baer, who was stationed in Paris for three years, said the French intelligence service regularly spies on Americans — both on U.S. diplomats and business people. The spying has included rifling through possessions of a diplomat, businessman or spy in Paris hotel rooms and installing listening devices in first-class seats of the now-defunct Concord aircraft to record Americans’ conversations, he said.
In another instance, a former French intelligence director stated that the spy agency compiled a detailed secret dossier of the proprietary proposals that U.S. and Soviet companies wrote to compete with a French company for a $1 billion contract to supply fighter jets to India.