European politicians greeted a report of U.S. wiretappings of European Union buildings with caution and concern, demanding explanations and speaking of a possible souring of transatlantic relations.
“I am deeply worried and shocked,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said late yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-U.S. relations.”
Schulz said he had demanded a clarification from the U.S. after German magazine Der Spiegel said the National Security Agency had wiretapped diplomatic mission buildings in Washington and New York, infiltrated computer networks and described the 27-nation bloc as a “target.”
The German magazine, citing classified documents in the possession of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also said the NSA had wiretapped the United Nations building in New York. The NSA was more active in watching Germany than other EU countries, Der Spiegel reported today.
The European Commission has “immediately been in contact with the U.S. authorities in Washington, D.C., and in Brussels and confronted them with the press reports,” Marlene Holzner, a spokeswoman for the EU’s regulatory arm, said via e-mail.
Two U.S. officials familiar with American electronic espionage programs refused to declined to comment on the allegations in Spiegel about eavesdropping at EU and UN offices.
However, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, both said that all multinational institutions are routine targets for both technological and human intelligence by virtually all member nations. Both said that any such U.S. efforts are far from unique, though they allowed that in many instances American programs are more extensive and ambitious than those of most other countries except China, France, Israel, the U.K. and Iran.
The officials said spying in an institution such as the EU or the UN doesn’t necessarily mean spying on that institution. In most cases, they said, it targets third countries’ communications with other members of an organization, in some cases including U.S. allies.
For example, said one of the officials, the U.S. routinely targets Iranian and North Korean contacts with other nations in an effort to police the trade embargoes and criminal contacts of those countries.
Every month about 500 million connections from Germany were tapped, including phone calls, e-mails and chats, according to Spiegel. The U.S. agency classified Germany as a “third-class” partner and “target,” the magazine said.
If the reports are correct, the U.S. approach to intelligence-gathering is reminiscent of Cold War practices and “utterly inappropriate,” Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Germany’s minister of justice, said in a statement today.
The German Federal Prosecutor’s office has started to gather and analyze information on the tapping programs Prism, Tempora and Boundless Informant, the magazine said, citing a spokeswoman for the Karlsuhe, Germany-based authority.
The federal prosecutor hasn’t decided whether to open a formal investigation, Spiegel said. The federal prosecutor’s office wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden defended American spying, though he said he didn’t know what the government is doing now as he left office five years ago. Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Hayden said the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches “is not an international treaty.”
“Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing,” Hayden said.
White House officials traveling with President Barack Obama in Africa referred all inquiries about the matter to the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.