WASHINGTON, D.C.: Europe and Washington traded spying accusations on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila), as envoys met to seek ways to rebuild trust after shock revelations about the scale and scope of United States (US) surveillance of its allies.
A German intelligence delegation and a separate group of European Union lawmakers were in the US capital to confront their American allies about the alleged bugging of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone.
And the visit coincided with the latest in a series of newspaper reports based on leaked National Security Agency (NSA) files, this one alleging US agents hacked into cables used by Google and Yahoo.
President Barack Obama’s spy chiefs are on the defensive over the reports, which have riled America’s allies and exposed the vast scale of the NSA’s snooping on telephone calls and Internet traffic.
The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, repeated the administration’s argument that all countries spy on one another, and said that the allies should discuss a new working relationship.
“I think this partnership with Europe is absolutely important,” he said.
“But it has to do with everybody coming to the table and let’s put off all the sensationalism and say: ‘Is there a better way for our countries to work together?’”
US intelligence chiefs have said these reports are based on a misinterpretation of an NSA slide leaked to the media by fugitive former intelligence technician Edward Snowden.
Rather than siphoning off the records of tens of millions of calls in Europe, as the slide seems to suggest, they argue that the data was in many cases gathered and shared by European agencies.
“The perception that NSA is collecting 70 million phone calls in France or Spain or Italy is factually incorrect,” Alexander said at a conference organized by Bloomberg media group.
“This is actually countries working together to support military operations, collecting what they need to protect our forces in areas where we work together as nations.”
This argument, which Alexander and overall US spy chief James Clapper made on Tuesday before a Congressional committee, had already raised eyebrows in Europe.
Meanwhile, a new report in the Washington Post alleged that NSA technicians had tapped into Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, winning access to vast amounts of private data.
The report said a program dubbed Muscular, operated with the NSA’s British counterpart GCHQ, can intercept data directly from the fiber-optic cables used by the US Internet giants.
The Post reported this is a secret program that is unlike Prism, another NSA tool revealed by Snowden’s leaks, which relies on secret court orders to obtain data from technology firms.