The NSA says European spy services shared phone data with it, and reports alleging otherwise are ‘false’.
MILLIONS of phone records at the centre of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the US by European intelligence services – not collected by the NSA, upending a furore that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations.
The revelations suggest a greater level of European involvement in global surveillance, in conjunction at times with the NSA. The disclosures also put European leaders who loudly protested reports of the NSA’s spying in a difficult spot, showing how their spy agencies aided the Americans.
The phone records collected by the Europeans – in war zones and other areas outside their borders – were shared with the NSA as part of efforts to help protect American and allied troops and civilians, US officials said.
European leaders remain chagrined over revelations that the US was spying on dozens of world leaders, including close allies in Europe.
The new disclosures were separate from those programs, but they underline the complexities of intelligence relationships, and how the US and its allies co-operate in some ways and compete in others.
“That the evil NSA and the wicked US were the only ones engaged in this gross violation of international norms -that was the fairy tale,” said James Lewis, a former State Department official, now a technology-policy specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“It was never true. The US’s behaviour wasn’t outside the norm. It is the norm.”
Consecutive reports in French, Spanish and Italian newspapers over the past week sparked a frenzy of finger-pointing by European politicians. The reports were based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and purportedly showed the extent to which the NSA sweeps up phone records in those countries.
France’s Le Monde said the documents showed that more than 70 million French phone records between early December last year and early January this year were collected by the NSA, prompting Paris to lodge a protest with the US. In Spain, El Mundo reported that it had seen NSA documents that showed the US spy agency had intercepted 60.5 million Spanish phone calls during the same time period.
US officials initially responded to the reports by branding them as inaccurate, without specifying how. Late yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the data cited by the European news reports wasn’t collected by the NSA but by its European partners.
US officials said the data was provided to the NSA under long-standing intelligence sharing arrangements.
Hours later, in a congressional hearing, the National Security Agency director, General Keith Alexander, confirmed the broad outlines of the Journal report, saying the specific documents released by Mr Snowden didn’t represent data collected by the NSA or any other US agency and didn’t include records from calls within those countries.
He said the data, displayed in computer-screen shots, was instead from a system that contained phone records collected by the US and NATO countries “in defence of our countries and in support of military operations”.
He said conclusions the US collected the data were “false. And it’s false that it was collected on European citizens. It was neither.”
The US until now had been silent about the role of European partners in these collection efforts to protect the relationships. French officials declined to comment.
A Spanish official said Spain’s intelligence collaboration with the NSA has been limited to theatres of operations in Afghanistan, Mali and international operations against jihadist groups. The data published in El Mundo was gathered during these operations, not in Spain.
At yesterday’s house intelligence committee hearing, politicians pressed General Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the NSA’s tapping of world leaders’ phone conversations, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Asked whether US allies spy on the US, Mr Clapper said: “Absolutely.”
Democrat congressman Adam Schiff asked why congress had not been informed when US spies tapped a world leader’s telephone.
Mr Clapper said congress wasn’t told about each and every “selector”, the intelligence term for a phone number or other information that would identify an espionage target.
“Not all selectors are equal,” Mr Schiff responded, especially “when the selector is the chancellor of an allied nation.”
Mr Clapper said intelligence agencies followed the priorities set by the President and key departments, but did not necessarily provide top officials with details on how each requirement was being fulfilled.
The White House did, however, see the final product, he said.
Reporting to policymakers on the “plans and intentions” of world leaders was a standard request to intelligence agencies such as the NSA, Mr Clapper said, and the best way to understand a foreign leader’s intentions was to obtain their communications.
Privately, some intelligence officials disputed claims that the President and top White House officials were unaware of how such information was obtained.
“If there’s an intelligence report that says the leader of this country is likely to say X or Y, where do you think that comes from?” the official said
Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman
The Wall Street Journal
October 31, 2013 12:00AM