A report Monday that the National Security Agency vacuumed up more than 70 million French phone records in one month left the Obama administration scrambling once again to explain spy practices that have angered allies and dented the United States’ reputation overseas.
In a sign that the latest revelations are causing political and diplomatic headaches, President Obama called French President Francois Hollande on Monday to discuss what the White House called “recent disclosures in the press — some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies.”
To assuage the French and other allies, the Obama administration is pointing to a White House review of intelligence-gathering practices that the president ordered in response to foreign and domestic criticism of U.S. surveillance operations.
That review, whose findings are expected in December, is similar to the audit of counterterrorism practices that led to new curbs on the use of drones earlier this year. It could recommend some new limits or greater accountability for electronic espionage by the NSA.
A series of disclosures in the media, based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also have angered Brazil, Germany and Mexico, among other countries. Brazil canceled a visit by President Dilma Rousseff to the White House in protest of NSA electronic espionage targeting that country. Anger in European nations about the scope of NSA spy programs has threatened to set back negotiations over a trans-Atlantic free-trade pact, a key U.S. trade goal.
The latest revelations, reported in the newspaper Le Monde, appeared as Secretary of State John F. Kerry was visiting Paris. Kerry, who likes to point out — sometimes in French — that France is the United States’ oldest ally, tried to explain in person why the United States was caught spying on one of its closest friends.
“Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens,” Kerry said at a news conference in Paris on Monday. “This work is going to continue, as well as our very close consultations with our friends here in France.”
The story about the NSA’s collection of phone records from French citizens appeared timed to coincide with Kerry’s trip to France for unrelated meetings.
“This has had an impact on the way America works with its allies and on intelligence-gathering activities going forward,” a senior U.S. official said Monday.
“All you can do is go back channel and try to explain to these allies that all these intelligence-gathering activities are designed in part to protect them, and to point to the president’s wide-ranging review and how it’s going to lead to some changes,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters.
The administration has been increasingly public in reminding friendly nations about the value of intelligence the United States shares.
“The U.S. and France have enjoyed a long friendship based on our shared values and a history of cooperating to advance mutual interests around the globe,” a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Paris said Monday. “As part of that effort, we work closely with France to protect the collective security of our two countries and of our citizens.”
The French government had summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles H. Rivkin to answer for the reported spying.
“We reminded him that such practices between partners are totally unacceptable and that he must assure us that they are no longer going on,” a French statement said. “We asked for a prompt and tangible response to our concerns.”
That response isn’t likely to include a pledge never to snoop on an ally — the United States has done so for decades, and France and other U.S. allies run their own intelligence operations in friendly countries.
France reportedly bugged the first-class cabins of major air carriers in the 1990s, presumably to listen in on top executives and government ministers.
The Obama administration is quietly making the everybody-does-it argument, to other governments and to critics at home.
“Lots of countries are engaged in the activity of trying to protect their citizens and the world,” Kerry said Monday.
The Le Monde report said that conversations involving certain telephone numbers were automatically recorded. The report, mostly based on records from Dec. 10, 2012, to Jan 8, concerned at least two French telecommunications companies and showed that text messages also were collected based on key words.
The NSA’s targets appeared to be people with suspected links to terrorism, but also involved French business and political figures, Le Monde said.
“We have extremely useful cooperation with the United States in the struggle against terrorism, but this cooperation does not justify everything,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at a European Union meeting in Luxembourg, according to Reuters.
“We’ve asked the United States to provide clarifications, explanations and justifications extremely quickly,” Fabius said.
It is not clear whether France intends to take any punitive action. French prosecutors already had opened a preliminary inquiry into one of the NSA’s collection programs, known as Prism.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged the outcry.
“I’m not going to talk about what other countries have the right to feel or not feel,” she said. “What I will say is that we will continue to have discussions through diplomatic channels as countries want to discuss these issues.”
Harf was asked whether the latest revelations would damage the United States’ working relationship with France.
“We certainly hope that it doesn’t,” she said.
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.