European intelligence agencies and not American spies were responsible for the mass collection of phone records that provoked outrage in France and Spain, the US claimed on Tuesday.
General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), said reports that the US had collected millions of Spanish and French phone records were "absolutely false". "To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens," General Alexander said when asked about the reports, which were based on classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the fugitive NSA contractor.
Shortly before the NSA chief appeared before a congressional committee, US officials briefed the Wall Street Journal that Spain and France's own intelligence agencies had carried out the surveillance and shared their findings with the NSA.
The anonymous officials claimed that the monitored calls were not even made within Spanish and French borders and could be surveillance undertaken outside Europe. In a rebuttal of the reports in the French paper Le Monde and the Spanish El Mundo, General Alexander said "they and the person who stole the classified data [Mr Snowden] do not understand what they were looking at" when they published slides from an NSA document.
President Barack Obama was said to be on the verge of ordering a halt to spying on the heads of allied governments. The White House said it was looking at all American spy activities following the leaks by Snowden but was putting a "special emphasis on whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state".
Obama was reported to have already halted eavesdropping at the UN's headquarters in New York. German officials said that while the White House's public statements had become more conciliatory, there remained wariness and little progress had been made in formalising an American commitment to curb spying.
"An agreement that you feel might be broken at any time is not worth very much," one diplomat said. "We need to re-establish trust and then come to some kind of understanding comparable to the [no spy agreement] the US has with other English speaking countries."
Despite close US-German relations, the White House is reluctant to be drawn into any formal agreement and is resistant to demands that a no-spy deal be extended to all 28 EU member states.