Germany on Wednesday became the latest nation to express outrage at alleged American spy practices, accusing the National Security Agency of possibly monitoring Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
Merkel’s office made the accusation in a statement that began: “The federal government has received information that the mobile phone of the federal chancellor is possibly being surveyed.”
The statement said Merkel had phoned President Barack Obama about the possible monitoring and told him the practice was unacceptable.
The White House confirmed the call and said Obama had assured the German chancellor that her phone wasn’t being monitored. But the German statement made no mention of those assurances. It called monitoring the cellphone of the leader of a friendly country “a severe breach of confidence.”
“Such practices should be stopped immediately,” the statement said.
The German allegations come a day after Mexican officials reacted angrily to reports that the NSA had hacked into the email account of its president and two days after France summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain news reports that the NSA had monitored more than 70 million French communications, including the phone calls and emails of political and business leaders.
What precisely sparked the German pique wasn’t clear. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that the country’s Federal Intelligence Service had brought the matter to Merkel’s attention after the magazine alerted it to the information.
But the magazine didn’t say how it had come by the information or whether it had been included in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the source of many recent Der Spiegel reports about NSA surveillance.
“The unusually strong reaction from the chancellery was prompted by Spiegel research,” the magazine reported. “After the information was examined by the country’s foreign intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Office for Information Security, Berlin seems to have found their suspicions plausible enough to confront the U.S. government.”
NSA surveillance programs for Internet and cellphone communications have been the subject of bitter German commentary since they were first revealed in June, especially among residents of the former East Germany, who are only two decades removed from the tyranny of the Stasi spy organization. Earlier reports had alleged that 500 million electronic communications from Germany had been captured and stored in NSA databanks.
Online comments Wednesday took Merkel to task for waiting to issue a tough denunciation of U.S. practices until she herself was the victim of alleged spying. Germans have been upset for months about the idea that someone was intercepting their communications. The matter has been the subject of numerous political talk shows and news programs, and over the summer television commercials encouraged viewers to sign up for an email service that at no time passes through servers in the United States.
The statement, issued by Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert, said that part of the phone conversation with Obama involved Merkel asking for answers to questions that Germany originally had posed when the NSA program was revealed in June.
The statement seemed to suggest that an unsatisfactory answer might endanger U.S.-German intelligence sharing. “Being a close ally, the federal government expects a clear contractual base for the practices of the services and their collaboration,” the statement said..
The outrage from Germany sounded familiar.
Mexico warned Tuesday that the reported surveillance of top Mexican officials might sour security cooperation between the countries.
Reading a statement in Geneva, Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade noted that the NSA allegedly had hacked into email accounts belonging to President Enrique Pena Nieto and former President Felipe Calderon.
“Shared security within a neighborhood that is respectful and jointly responsible cannot be built by breaking the law and violating the trust,” Meade said. “Mexico is convinced that such espionage constitutes a violation of the standard, an abuse of trust built between partner countries, and dishonors the historic friendship between our nations.”
That followed the angry response of France, where newspaper Le Monde reported that more than 70 million French phone calls had been recorded during a single 30-day period last year.
Le Monde reported that some phones were recorded automatically, and the NSA gathered text messages based on keywords. Those spied upon extended far beyond those suspected of having terrorism links and included high-profile business people, politicians and the French administration.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault demanded “clear answers, justifying the reasons these practices were used and above all creating the conditions of transparency so these practices can be put to an end.”
James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, issued a statement late Tuesday denying the report: “The allegation that the National Security Agency collected more than 70 million ‘recordings of French citizens’ telephone data’ is false.”
His statement went on to note, however, that he wouldn’t discuss “the details of our activities” but that whatever information was gathered is essential “to protect the nation, its interests and its allies from, among other things, threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
On Wednesday, Carney was asked about his use of the word “monitoring” in his remark that “The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor” and whether that didn’t leave the door open to the possibility that the NSA, as part of a broader sweep, had picked up some of Merkel’s communications.
“As we’ve said in the past, you know, we gather foreign intelligence just like similar agencies of other countries,” he said. “But we are working to, as the president has said, to review the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance both the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that everyone shares.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this story from Washington.
By Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Foreign Staff