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France is VERY unhappy over claims the US has been eavesdropping

Its last three presidents are said to have been targeted, but the US denies the claims.

Image: Michel Euler

WIKILEAKS PUBLISHED DOCUMENTS late last night that it says show the US National Security Agency eavesdropped on the last three French presidents, releasing material which appeared to capture officials in Paris talking candidly about Greece’s economy, relations with Germany — and, ironically, American espionage.

Hollande has called an emergency meeting of the defence council over the incident.

But AFP reports the White House denies it has been targeting Hollande’s communications.

“We are not targeting and will not target the communications of PresidentHollande,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.

Uproar

The release caused an uproar among French politicians, although it didn’t reveal any huge surprises or secrets.

France itself is on the verge of approving broad new surveillance powers, and is among several US allies that rely heavily on American spying powers when trying to prevent terrorist and other threats.

There was no instant confirmation of the accuracy of the documents released in collaboration with French daily newspaper Liberation and investigative website Mediapart, but WikiLeaks has a track record of publishing intelligence and diplomatic material.

It appeared serious enough to prompt an emergency meeting of President Francois Hollande’s defense council, according to presidential aides. The council, convening this morning, includes top French security officials.

Accurate?

Germany G-7 Summit Source: Markus Schreiber

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Associated Press he was confident the documents were authentic, noting that WikiLeaks’ previous mass disclosures — including a large cache of Saudi diplomatic memos released last week — have proven to be accurate.

Hollande’s office didn’t comment beyond announcing Wednesday’s security meeting, though his Socialist Party issued an angry statement saying the reports suggest “a truly stupefying state paranoia”.

Even if the government was aware of such intercepts, the party said, that doesn’t mean “that this massive, systematic, uncontrolled eavesdropping is tolerable.”

An aide to Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy told the AP that the former president considers these methods unacceptable, especially from an ally. The aide was not authorised to be publicly named.

There was no immediate comment from former President Jacques Chirac, also reportedly targeted by the eavesdropping.

US National Security Council spokesman Ned Price released a statement last night saying the US is “not targeting and will not target the communications of President Hollande.”

“We do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose,” Price added. “This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike. We work closely with France on all matters of international concern, and the French are indispensable partners.”

Price did not address claims that the US had previously eavesdropped on Hollande or his predecessors.

Ever since documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed in 2013 that the NSA had been eavesdropping on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it had been understood that the US had been using the digital spying agency to intercept the conversations of allied politicians.

Embarrassment

Germany G-7 US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande at the G7 summit Source: Carolyn Kaster

Still, the new revelations are bound to cause diplomatic embarrassment for the Americans, even though friends have been spying on friends for thousands of years.

Late Tuesday, several French politicians posted messages to social media voicing their disgust with the reports.

Hollande said last year that he discussed his concerns about NSA surveillance with President Barack Obama during a visit to the US, and they patched up their differences.

After the Merkel disclosures, Obama ordered a wholesale review of NSA spying on allies, after officials suggested that senior White House officials had not approved many operations that were largely on auto-pilot.

After the review, American officials said Obama had ordered a halt to spying on the leaders of allied countries, if not their aides.

Intercepts

France D-Day Source: AP/Press Association Images

WikiLeaks, on its website, listed the contents of what it said was five selected “top” intercepts of communications involving French presidents — on subjects including a top UN appointment, the Middle East peace process, and the handling of the euro crisis — between 2006 and 2012.

The report also listed in a chart what were said to be phone numbers listed by NSA as top French official “intercept targets,” including that of the French president’s own cellphone, with some digits crossed out.

The purported intelligence reports describe French relations with Germany and the parlous state of the Greek economy.

A March 24, 2010 report describes Sarkozy’s frustration at the US refusal to sign an espionage pact:

As (French Ambassador to Washington Pierre) Vimont and (Sarkozy’s diplomatic advisor Jean-David) Levitte understand it, the main sticking point is the U.S. desire to continue spying on France.

Hrafnsson refused to comment on how WikiLeaks had obtained the documents and declined to go into specifics about what else might be appearing in the French press, but said that “they can expect more revelations in the near future.”

Controversial security bill

France D-Day Source: AP/Press Association Images

Tuesday’s release appeared to be carefully timed: the night before the French Parliament is expected to definitively pass a controversial security bill legalising broad surveillance, especially of terrorism suspects.

Privacy advocates and human rights groups have protested the French surveillance bill expected to be approved Wednesday, which would let the government install “black boxes” to collect metadata from every major phone and Internet company in hopes of preventing imminent attacks.

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