Seeking to tamp down the latest diplomatic crisis stemming from the National Security Agency snooping scandal, President Obama called French President Francois Hollande on Monday in an attempt to allay French outrage after a newspaper report revealed how U.S. intelligence officials have spied on tens of millions of phone calls and text messages in France.
A White House statement after the call suggested that Mr. Obama sought to play down the report by France’s Le Monde newspaper, which drew from previously unreported documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to show how the spy agency had secretly recorded more than 70 million digital communications in France over the course of a single month in December and January.
Germany, Brazil, Mexico and Britain are among the U.S. allies that have previously expressed outrage and dismay over revelations of NSA surveillance.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande “discussed recent disclosures in the press — some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed,” the White House said. “The president made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”
The White House circulated the statement to reporters Monday evening at the end of a day that saw suspicion rise among French authorities over the extent to which the U.S. spying program may have run beyond the parameters of basic intelligence-gathering traditionally undertaken by Washington and its Western European allies in the post-Cold War era.
Le Monde’s report appeared timed to trigger the most maximum impact possible on that question — appearing just as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was arriving in Paris on an unrelated diplomatic visit focused on shoring up international support for the Obama administration’s attempts to bring peace to the Middle East.
With French officials having summoned the U.S. ambassador in Paris to explain the NSA program and spending much of Monday morning issuing scathing remarks about the American spying activities, Mr. Kerry found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to address questions about the revelations during a news conference in Paris on Monday night.
While refusing to comment on specifics, Mr. Kerry told reporters that America’s spying activities are key to protecting the world from terrorism and should in no way harm the close diplomatic relationship that exists between Washington and Paris.
Aware, however, that previous revelations about the NSA program have raised the ire of other traditionally lockstep U.S. allies, Mr. Kerry said that the Obama administration is working overtime to “find the right balance” between protecting people’s privacy and providing security in a dangerous world.
“We see much more suicide bombing taking place in various parts of the world right now,” he said, stressing that the task of sniffing out terrorist plots is “a very complicated, very challenging” and an “everyday, 24/7/365, task.”
Details of the program were first revealed to the media in June when Mr. Snowden leaked documents to Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist who reports on national security and civil liberties issues at the Guardian newspaper in Britain.
Mr. Snowden, who fled the United States to avoid facing charges of espionage related to the leaking of classified documents, has since been granted asylum in Russia.
But Mr. Greenwald has continued writing about the documents. He co-authored Monday’s report in Le Monde, which explained how the NSA had targeted certain telephone numbers in France as “triggers” — so that when the numbers were used, the calls would be automatically taped. The system reportedly also involved targeting key words in text messages, which would trigger the messages to be recorded.
Following the report’s publication, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that “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.”
Mr. Fabius said he planned to discuss the situation with Mr. Kerry on Tuesday. “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.”