Since Le Monde published Gleen Greenwald’s article (citing information from documents given to him by Edward Snowden), over the weekend, the French government has summoned the US ambassador to France to the Elysée Palace to explain Gleenwald’s claims that the NSA had been spying on French citizens.
When the revelations about the NSA came to light, France and Germany protested, even though they didn’t go as far as the Brazilian president, Dilma Roussef, who cancelled a visit to the United States. Germany was apparently placated by assurances that the NSA would never target normal German citizens in its investigations. That is, up until very recently, when the news broke that the US may have, in the past, bugged Angela Merkel’s phone. At this, Merkel didn’t hesitate to publicly rebuke Obama and demand, in partnership with France, that the US give a full account of what spying practices it may have undertaken, at the EU summit in Brussels. According to France and Germany, the US has until the end of the year to provide serious answers as to how and on whom it undertakes its spying techniques. Yet when Libération reported this on Friday, it also seemed implied that this may be more of a symbolic demand, not actually expected to change or achieve much.
It took this invasion of the German Chancellor’s privacy for Germany to publicly express more than just discontent. In France, the US ambassador was summoned over the recent revelation that the US had been bugging French citizen’s telephones. The Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, told the press that it was imperative to receive insurances that these kinds of practices weren’t still being continued. After that, it was revealed that the US had also been spying on French diplomatic manoeuvres.
Le Monde particulary reported that the tapping of phones was likely to have targeted not only suspected terrorists, but also key figures in business and politics.
This week, it reported that Washington had also planted electronic spies in computers in French embassies in Washington, the UN and New York. It suggested that this bugging of embassies had helped the US gather enough information to successfully push through a vote at the UN Security Council in 2010, to impose more sanctions on Iran after it had not respected its international obligations in relation to its nuclear weapons programme. The way in which Washington has been spying on French diplomatic activities varies. They have several different techniques which they use: ‘Highlands;’ which uses remote cookies to gather information, ‘Vagrant;’ which takes a print shot of information from screens, and ‘PBX;’ which somehow manages to garner information from the embassies as if participating in a conference call.
An interesting article in Foreign Policy yesterday pointed out the American’s spying on the French is nothing new. During the Second World War, the US government first spied on Pétain’s Vichy government, and then on De Gaulle’s Free French government, in both cases breaking codes to decipher highly confidential and sensitive messages.
Hollande and Merkel have been united today in their message that this lack of trust that has been clearly demonstrated on the part of American government was counterproductive in the joint fight against terrorism. Merkel evoked the fact that United States and Europe are ‘allies.’ Nevertheless, given the fact that a US official, in a remark widely cited by the press, said a few days ago that the US doesn’t have ‘friends, only targets,’ this attempt at common ground seems largely figurative. Added to this is the fact that Hollande yesterday explained to the press that he had known, since arriving to power, that the NSA had electronically spied on the activity in the Élysée palace at the time of the electoral contest in 2012. Yet it is only at these last, and more personal, revelations that these two European powerhouses have decided to affirmatively take action.
In Le Monde and Le Figaro yesterday, the Franco-German union was widely discussed, yet in contrast to the UK press, hardly anything was made of the UK position. However, today, Le Monde picked up on the Guardian’s article revealing that GCHQ fears ‘public debate,’ in the UK over its surveillance programmes. The documents that Snowden leaked demonstrated that GCHQ is an important feature of the NSA’s satellite surveillance, being in an ideal position to survey and recount internet and phone traffic in Europe back to the US. What has happened to the freedom of protest in the UK that neither the Conservatives nor the opposition have reacted to this information. We are in too deep. The Germans and the French are in the fortunate position of being able to (rightly) criticize the Americans for their invasive behaviour. We are aware of the hypocrisy, perhaps, of doing such a thing, seeing as we aid and abet the Americans in this vast game of spies and non-truths.