Friday 25 May 2018

U.S. plays down spying reports, EU leaders voice outrage

French President Hollande
French President Hollande

THE United States is not alone in using "lots of activities" to safeguard its security, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, in his first response to reports of U.S. spying that have infuriated European allies.

The EU has demanded that the United States explain a report in a German magazine that Washington is spying on the bloc, saying that, if true, such surveillance was shocking.

French President Francois Hollande called the alleged spying intolerable, saying it could hinder U.S. relations with Paris and the European Union. "We want this to stop fast," he said.

The Guardian newspaper said on Sunday the United States had also targeted non-European allies, including Japan, South Korea and India, for spying - an awkward report for Kerry as he arrived for an Asian security conference in Brunei on Monday.

Kerry confirmed that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had raised the issue when he met her in Brunei. He said he had yet to see details of the newspaper allegations.

"I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that it is not unusual for lots of nations," Kerry told a news conference.

Several EU policymakers said talks on a U.S.-EU free trade deal should be frozen until Washington clarifies its activities.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has asked officials to carry out a security sweep of EU buildings, said Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, spokeswoman for the EU's executive body.

Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament, told French radio the United States had crossed a line.

"I was always sure that dictatorships, some authoritarian systems, tried to listen ... but that measures like that are now practised by an ally, by a friend, that is shocking, if it is true," Schulz said in an interview with France 2.

Officials in Japan and South Korea said they were aware of the newspaper reports and had asked Washington to clarify them.

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who is also in Brunei, told ANI television: "These are all areas of great strategic importance that we have to cooperate and collaborate in, in counter-terrorism measures.

"I think we (the United States and India) continue to remain in touch and cooperate and (if) there is any concern we would convey it or they would convey it to us," he added.


But some of Washington's European allies said counter-terrorism could not justify the scale of the alleged spying.

In an article that sparked EU outrage, Der Spiegel said on Saturday that the National Security Agency (NSA) bugged EU offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks.

On Sunday the German magazine reported that the U.S. agency taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month, much more than any other European peer and similar to the data tapped in China or Iraq.

Hollande said he had told Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to contact Kerry for an explanation and that Fabius would also meet the U.S. ambassador in Paris "to make the point that we cannot tolerate this kind of behaviour between allies and friends".

The French president said France and the EU, if not all U.S. partners, would need guarantees on the spying issue before going ahead with negotiations and dealings with the United States.

"We know there are systems that need to be monitored, notably in the battle against terrorism, but I don't think this risk exists within our embassies or the European Union," he declared.

In Berlin, German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said the spying reports recalled Cold War hostilities. "It goes beyond any imagination that our friends in the United States view the Europeans as enemies," she said.

Peer Steinbrueck, Social Democrat candidate for German chancellor, said the EU and European parliament should halt trade talks with Washington until "these activities are ruled out" in future, saying: "This creates a huge loss of trust."

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said she was confident U.S. authorities would supply the information Rome had asked for. Defence Minister Mario Mauro seemed to take a harder line, telling Repubblica television that if the spying reports were true, then U.S.-Italian ties would be "heavily compromised".

Revelations about the U.S. surveillance programme, which was made public by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have raised a furore in the United States and abroad over the balance between privacy rights and national security.

Kerry said his government thought China could have helped the United States arrest Snowden while he was in Hong Kong. Snowden is now holed up at an international airport in Russia, from where he has applied for asylum in Ecuador.

"It is safe to say that the Obama administration believes that our friends in China could in fact have made a difference here, but we have a lot of issues that we are dealing with right now," Kerry said.

He said he had discussed Snowden with the Chinese foreign minister during one-on-one meetings on the summit sidelines.


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