WASHINGTON – The Obama administration faced a breakdown in confidence Sunday from key foreign allies who threatened investigations and sanctions against the United States over secret surveillance programs that reportedly installed covert listening devices in European Union offices.
U.S. intelligence officials said they will directly discuss with EU officials the new allegations, reported in Sunday’s editions of the German news weekly Der Spiegel. But the former head of the CIA and National Security Agency urged the White House to make the spy programs more transparent to calm public fears about the American government’s snooping.
It was the latest backlash in a nearly monthlong global debate over the reach of U.S. surveillance that aims to prevent terror attacks. The two programs, both run by the NSA, pick up millions of telephone and Internet records that are routed through American networks each day. They have raised sharp concerns about whether they violate public privacy rights at home and abroad.
Several European officials – including in Germany, Italy, France, Luxembourg and the EU government itself – said the new revelations could scuttle ongoing negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty that, ultimately, seeks to create jobs and boost commerce by billions annually in what would be the world’s largest free trade area.
According to Der Spiegel, the NSA planted bugs in the EU’s diplomatic offices in Washington and infiltrated the building’s computer network. Similar measures were taken at the EU’s mission to the United Nations in New York, the magazine said. It also reported that the NSA used secure facilities at NATO headquarters in Brussels to dial into telephone maintenance systems that would have allowed it to intercept senior officials’ calls and Internet traffic at a key EU office nearby.
The Spiegel report cited classified U.S. documents taken by NSA leaker and former contractor Edward Snowden that the magazine said it had partly seen. It did not publish the alleged NSA documents it cited nor say how it obtained access to them. But one of the report’s authors is Laura Poitras, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who interviewed Snowden while he was holed up in Hong Kong.
In Washington, a statement from the national intelligence director’s office said U.S. officials planned to respond to the concerns with their EU counterparts and through diplomatic channels with specific nations.
It’s also believed Snowden is seeking political asylum from Ecuador. But Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa signaled in an AP interview Sunday that it’s unlikely Snowden will end up there.