Allegations of U.S. wiretapping of European allies followed Secretary of State John Kerry to a summit in Southeast Asia, even as the top U.S. diplomat sought to focus on the region’s security and economic growth.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, raised the bugging allegation in a meeting today, Kerry said at a press conference in Brunei where he’s attending a forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“I agreed to find out what the situation is and I will get back with her,” Kerry told reporters, adding he had no direct knowledge of the matter reported by the German magazine Der Spiegel. Citing classified documents obtained by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the periodical said the U.S. National Security Agency had wiretapped diplomatic missions in Washington and New York, infiltrated computer networks and referred to the 28-nation EU as a “target.”
The report, which has alarmed some European politicians and raised the prospect of a potential souring in transatlantic relations, complicated Kerry’s diplomatic overture to Asia, a region to which the Obama administration wants to devote greater focus.
In a statement yesterday, Ashton said she was seeking “urgent clarification of the veracity of the facts surrounding these allegations” and would decline further comment until she hears a U.S. explanation. She didn’t respond to reporters’ requests for comment today.
Following the Der Spiegel claims, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is asking the U.S. ambassador for explanations.
“We aren’t in the Cold War anymore,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, said at a news conference in Berlin today. “If it’s true that diplomatic missions have been spied on, it would be absolutely unacceptable for us.” Germany’s Foreign Ministry “invited” the U.S. ambassador in Berlin to discuss the matter with a senior official today, spokesman Martin Schaefer said.
“I honestly haven’t heard about it, haven’t seen it, haven’t seen any of those reports,” said Kerry, who arrived in Brunei after three days of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East aimed at spurring a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “I need to find out what the truth” is, he said.
Kerry sought to downplay the bugging allegation, even as he promised to investigate the matter.
“Every country in the world that is engaged in international efforts and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security,” Kerry said. “That is not unusual for lots of nations.”
Kerry also said he discussed the Snowden case with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Snowden, who is wanted by the U.S. for disclosing confidential information, managed to leave Hong Kong, where he sought temporary refuge, and go to Moscow.
“The Obama administration believes that our friends in China could in fact have made the difference here,” Kerry said about China’s ability to prevent Snowden from exiting Hong Kong.
Before leaving Brunei tomorrow, Kerry plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the Syrian civil war that has claimed more than 93,000 lives and triggered a surge of more than 1.5 million refugees into neighboring countries such as Jordan.
Russia and the U.S. have been on a collision course over Syria policy after the Obama administration announced it would begin providing small arms to the Syrian rebels. Lavrov has called that move “a disaster” for efforts to end the conflict. Russia supplies arms to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Kerry, who has stressed repeatedly there is no military solution to Syria, said today that there must be negotiations.