The Washington Post

U.S. spying allegations could delay E.U. trade talks

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in Duesseldorf, comments Monday on the activities of the U.S. National Security Agency. (Rolf Vennenbernd/European Pressphoto Agency)

The economic fallout over allegations that the United States spied on European diplomats widened Wednesday, with France’s government saying it wanted to delay the start of major U.S.-E.U. trade talks and a German official suggesting that citizens there stop patronizing American Internet companies such as Google and Facebook if they are concerned about their privacy.

The French call to “temporarily suspend” the talks for about 15 days is the latest blow to come from fresh accusations that U.S. intelligence agencies had installed listening devices and accessed the computer networks of European diplomatic offices in Washington, New York and Brussels.

The allegations were first reported this past weekend by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which said it had reviewed documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“It’s not a question of stopping the negotiations,” French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters in Paris on Wednesday. But, she said, “it would be wise” to wait about 15 days “to avoid all controversy and to have the time to obtain the information that we have requested.”

The trade talks, scheduled to begin Monday, are aimed at sweeping away barriers between the United States and the 27-nation European Union, with major economic benefits for both sides.

But with fresh revelations trickling out about U.S. surveillance practices, some privacy-conscious Europeans are demanding consequences. Leaders in the European Parliament plan to decide Thursday whether to form a special committee to investigate the spying allegations.

In Germany — an economic powerhouse of 80 million people, many of whom still remember East Germany’s omnipresent surveillance of its citizens — some say U.S. companies may suffer as a result of reports that they hand over vast quantities of user data to U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Whoever fears their communication is being intercepted in any way should use services that don’t go through American servers,” German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said in Berlin on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. The admonition includes companies such as Google and Facebook, which disclose user information to the NSA as part of the PRISM program.

But a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that she was not seeking a delay of the trade talks.

Even as the Europeans were fuming over the alleged U.S. surveillance leaked by Snowden, they were being accused by Bolivian President Evo Morales of acting as agents for the United States.

Morales, who was returning home from a trip to Moscow, said his plane was forced to land in Vienna late Tuesday after France, Italy and Portugal refused to grant the aircraft permission to cross over their territory.

According to Bolivian authorities, officials in the European countries were concerned that Snowden, who has been holed up in a Moscow airport seeking asylum from the United States, may have been on board Morales’s plane. European officials have either denied or refused to confirm Morales’s accusations. The plane left Vienna on Wednesday.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.

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