French President Francois Hollande’s comment that “you don’t bug the portable phones of people you meet regularly at international summits” didn’t match the experience of former U.K. officials who recalled warnings of French espionage.
“Senior embassy staff in Paris warned us that mobile-phone communications in France were not secure,” Denis MacShane, Europe minister under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “I sometimes made a point of saying things on the phone that I wanted my opposite number to hear.”
Hollande made his remark at a summit in Brussels early today, after he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained about reported U.S. eavesdropping of European phones, including the German leader’s. That led to raised eyebrows in London.
One person who worked for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that when they succeeded Blair’s government at 10 Downing Street, they were given a six-hour security briefing. The main point was that they should assume there were five countries capable of reading their every e-mail and listening to every call: the U.S., China, Russia, Israel -- and France -- said the person, who asked not to be identified because the briefing was confidential.
U.S. officials acknowledged today the tensions the incident has raised. “It’s created significant challenges in our relationships with some of our partners and has been, of course, a public distraction as you even saw over the last couple of days,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
Psaki said Germany will be sending an official delegation to the U.S. to discuss the surveillance, which she defended as necessary to “protect our citizens, our allies and our homeland.” Psaki said the U.S. intelligence community, which has 16 members including the National Security Agency, “has more restrictions and oversight than any -- than any of these countries -- than any other country in history.”
Pressed today on the reports this week of American espionage in Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the work of U.K. intelligence agencies was conducted within the law and that they “help keep our people safe.”
Cameron attacked Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks have caused the uproar, and the newspapers that reported his revelations. He said they were “signaling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques. That is not going to make our world safer; that’s going to make our world more dangerous.”
The prime minister declined to name which countries he’d been told were spying on Britain. However, security in China is such a concern that U.K. officials are issued new mobile phones during visits, and told to leave their usual devices at home.
While no such constraints apply on visits to Europe, MacShane said he was told while in Paris to assume a transcript of any mobile call he made would be on his French counterpart’s desk within 15 minutes.
“I know the security scrambling device for senior ministers in official cars was extremely powerful,” MacShane said. “Women were told not to travel in the cars if they were pregnant.”
In Washington, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said yesterday that when she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, the French ambassador quoted a comment that Albright had made to someone else about the need for more women in government.
“They had an intercept of something,” she told a conference of the Center for American Progress. “So it isn’t exactly as if this is news.”
Former U.K. Security Minister Alan West told the BBC that surveillance was part of “the reality of the nasty world.”
“These things happen,” he said. “And on one visit I did with my wife -– to another country outside the Continent, I admit –- the bugging was so intense that before we turned the light off at night, she used to say ‘goodnight, everybody.’ And these things happen. It’s a reality.”