World Oct. 28, 2013 – 07:00AM JST
Europeans should be grateful for U.S. spying operations because they keep them safe, U.S. lawmakers said Sunday, urging allies to improve their own intelligence and oversight efforts.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers called “disingenuous” foreign governments’ outrage over the National Security Agency’s large dragnet over communications of several dozen world leaders and ordinary citizens.
And he blamed the news media for getting the story wrong.
“I think the bigger news story here would be… if the United States intelligence services weren’t trying to collect information that would protect US interests both (at) home and abroad,” the Republican told CNN.
The NSA denied German press reports that President Barack Obama was personally informed since 2002 that U.S. spies were tapping on top ally Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
And National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said U.S. intelligence gathering was simply “of the type gathered by all nations.”
Dick Cheney, the former U.S. vice president who wielded vast influence on intelligence matters during the George W Bush administration’s “war on terror,” said U.S. spying on allies was nothing new.
“It’s something that we have been involved in a long time,” he told ABC television.
The spying row prompted European leaders late last week to demand a new deal with Washington on intelligence gathering that would maintain an essential alliance while keeping the fight against terrorism on track.
But Representative Peter King, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said Obama should “stop apologizing” about the NSA’s phone-tapping scandal, claiming the programs had saved “thousands” of lives.
“The president should stop apologizing and stop being defensive,” he told NBC. “The reality is the NSA has saved thousands of lives, not just in the United States but in France, Germany and throughout Europe.”
King also suggested the French had conducted similar operations themselves and should therefore tamp down their criticism.
“The French is someone to talk. They carried out operations against the United States, the government and industry,” he said.
Rogers said that French citizens would celebrate U.S. phone intercepts in their country if they realized how the practice keeps them safe.
“If the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping champagne corks. It’s a good thing. it keeps the French safe. It keeps the U.S. safe. It keeps our European allies safe,” he added.
“This whole notion that we’re going to go after each other on what is really legitimate protection of nation-state interest, I think is disingenuous.”
The congressman called for improved intelligence oversight in European capitals, contrasting allies’ approaches to the United States, where he stressed the government must first obtain approval from a special court to monitor communications.
“They need to have a better oversight structure in Europe,” Rogers said. “I think they would be enlightened to find out what their intelligence services may or may not be doing.”
The Republican lawmaker said the news media was “100% wrong” in suggesting that the NSA monitored up to 70 million French telephone records in a single month.
“They’re seeing three or four pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle and wanted to come to a conclusion,” he added, insisting the records collection was a counterterrorism program that did not target French citizens.
Rogers also suggested that U.S. leaders failed to foresee the rise of fascism and communism in early 20th century Europe because American spies were not spying extensively on European allies’ communications.
“In the 1930s, we had this debate before. We decided we were going to turn off our ability to even listen to friends,” he said.
“Look what happened in the ‘30s, the rise of fascism and communism. We didn’t see any of it. It resulted in the death of really tens of millions of people.”
But the Republican lawmaker stressed that any intelligence activities between allies should remain “respectful” and “accurate,” as well as be subjected to proper oversight.
Meanwhile, German media reports said Sunday that tapping of Merkel’s phone may have begun as early as 2002.
Bild am Sonntag newspaper quoted U.S. intelligence sources as saying that America’s National Security Agency chief General Keith Alexander had briefed Obama on the operation against Merkel in 2010.
“Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue,” the newspaper quoted a high-ranking NSA official as saying.
News weekly Der Spiegel reported that leaked NSA documents showed Merkel’s phone had appeared on a list of spying targets for over a decade, and was still under surveillance weeks before Obama visited Berlin in June.
But NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines, in Washington, flatly denied the claims.
Alexander “did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,” Vines said.
“News reports claiming otherwise are not true,” she added.
The allegations, derived from documents acquired from US fugitive defense contractor Edward Snowden, have stoked global outrage that American spy agencies were responsible for broad snooping into the communications of several dozen world leaders and likely millions of ordinary people.
A poll for Der Spiegel found that 60% of Germans believe the scandal has damaged bilateral ties.
European leaders have since called for a new deal with Washington on intelligence gathering that would maintain an essential alliance while keeping the fight against terrorism on track.
Germany is to send its own spy chiefs to Washington to demand answers.
Swiss President Ueli Maurer warned the revelations risked “undermining confidence between states.”
“We don’t know if we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg or if other governments are acting in the same ruthless manner,” he told the Schweiz am Sonntag weekly.
With anger simmering in Berlin, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich sharpened his tone.
“Surveillance is a crime and those responsible must be brought to justice,” he told Bild, while Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle decried the “highly damaging” spying among friends.
Merkel confronted Obama with the snooping allegations in a phone call Wednesday saying that such spying would be a “breach of trust.”
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung said Obama had told Merkel during their call that he had been unaware of any spying against her, while Spiegel said he assured her that he would have stopped the operation at once.
Merkel’s office declined to comment on what Obama told her.
The White House has said it is not monitoring Merkel’s phone calls and will not do so in future, but it has refused to say whether it did previously.
Bild said Obama wanted to be informed in detail about Merkel, who has played a decisive role in the eurozone debt crisis and is widely seen as Europe’s most powerful leader.
As a result, the NSA stepped up its surveillance of her communications, targeting not only the mobile phone she uses to conduct business for her conservative Christian Democratic Union party but also her encrypted official device.
Merkel only acquired the latter handset over the summer.
Bild said U.S. specialists were then able to monitor the content of her conversations as well as text messages, which Merkel sends by the dozen each day to key associates.
Only the specially secured land line in her office was out of the reach of the NSA, which sent the intelligence gathered straight to the White House bypassing the agency’s headquarters, according to the report.
Bild and Spiegel described a hive of spy activity on the fourth floor of the U.S. embassy in central Berlin, a stone’s throw from the government quarter, from which the United States kept tabs on Merkel and other German officials.
Spiegel cited a classified 2010 document indicating that US intelligence had 80 high-tech surveillance offices worldwide in cities including Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Geneva and Frankfurt.
© 2013 AFP