France demanded an explanation from the United States yesterday (Monday) following claims that spies intercepted millions of phone calls made by French citizens, including politicians and business leaders.
The French foreign ministry summoned the American ambassador after Le Monde reported that US intelligence monitored 70 million phone calls and text messages between December 10 last year and January 8. The newspaper cited documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, said he was "deeply shocked" and demanded an explanation.
"It's incredible that an allied country like the United States at this point goes as far as spying on private communications that have no strategic justification, no justification on the basis of national defence," he said. The report was co-written by Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist who holds Mr Snowden's collection of leaked data.
He wrote that the NSA targeted not only suspected terrorists, but also high-profile individuals from business and politics. The report said that when certain telephone numbers are used in France, this activates a signal that triggers the recording of certain conversations. The surveillance system also picks up text messages and their content using keywords. One document instructed US analysts to draw from the electronic intercepts programme as well as another initiative, known as "Upstream", that afforded access to communications carried on undersea cables. The NSA programme for spying on France was codenamed US-985D, and the equivalents for Germany were codenamed US-987LA and US-987LB.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said he would call for new European Union rules on data protection at a summit this week. Le Monde reported in July that the French government was itself running a massive surveillance operation on its citizens, which provides its intelligence agencies with access to vast amounts of personal data.
The government denied the claim. France is also known to engage in commercial espionage against America and other close allies, including Germany. France has also cooperated with US efforts to keep track of Mr Snowden, preventing an aircraft carrying President Evo Morales of Bolivia from entering its airspace on its way back from Moscow, apparently because of suspicions that the former spy was on board.
In June, Mr Snowden leaked documents showing that the US had a vast, secret programme called Prism to monitor internet communications worldwide. Mr Snowden is wanted in the US on espionage charges. An NSA spokesman said: "We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.
"As the president said in his speech at the UN General Assembly, we've begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share."