NSA spying scale surprises, scandalises

2013-10-23 19:46
Edward Snowden (File, AFP)

Edward Snowden (File, AFP)

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Brussels - US allies knew that the Americans were spying on them, but they had no idea how much.

As details of National Security Agency spying programs have become public through former contractor Edward Snowden, citizens, activists and politicians in countries from Latin America to Europe have lined up to express shock and outrage at the scope of what Washington may know about them.

But politicians are also using the threat to their citizens' privacy to drum up their numbers at the polls, or to distract attention from their own domestic problems. Some have even downplayed the matter to keep good relations with Washington.

After a Paris newspaper reported the NSA had swept up 70.3 million French telephone records in a 30-day period, the French government called the US ambassador in for an explanation and put the issue of personal data protection on the agenda of the European Union summit that opens on Thursday.

But the official French position (that friendly nations should not spy on each another) can't be taken literally, a former French foreign minister says.

"The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us," Bernard Kouchner said on Tuesday in a radio interview. "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous. And it's a bit of a game to discover the eavesdropping among intelligence services, even though the services [especially the Americans and the French] work together quite efficiently."

The French government, which until this week had been largely silent in the face of widespread US snooping on its territory, may have had other reasons to speak out. The scandal over the NSA spying has managed to draw media attention away from France's controversial expulsion of a Roma family at a time when French President Francois Hollande's popularity is at a historic low. Just 23% of French approve of the job he is doing, according to a poll released last weekend.

In Germany, opposition politicians, the media and privacy activists have been vocal in their outrage over reported wide-scale US eavesdropping but not Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has worked hard to contain the damage to US-German relations and refrained from saying anything bad about the Americans.

The German leader has expressed surprise at the scope of US data collection efforts but also said her country was "dependent" on cooperation with the American spy agencies. It was thanks to "tips from American sources," she said, that security services were able to foil an Islamic terror plot in 2007 that targeted US soldiers and citizens in Germany with an explosive equivalent to 900 pounds of TNT.

Still, to fend off criticism by the opposition and the media, Merkel raised the electronic eavesdropping issue when President Barack Obama visited Germany in June, demanded answers from the US government, and backed calls for greater data protection at a European level.

Politically profitable

Few countries have responded as angrily to US spying than Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff took the extremely rare diplomatic step of cancelling a visit to Washington where she had been scheduled to receive a full state dinner this week.

Analysts say the anger is genuine, though also politically profitable for Rousseff, who faces an increasingly competitive re-election campaign next year. Her strong stance against the United States can only help her standing with the more left-wing elements of her ruling Workers Party.

David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, said since the September 11 attacks in the US, it was "well known by Brazilian governments" that the Americans had stepped up spying efforts.

"But what the government did not know was that Dilma's office had been hacked as well and this is what caused the outrage," Fleischer said.

Information the NSA collected in Mexico appears to have largely focused on drug fighting policies or government personnel trends. But the US agency also allegedly spied on the emails of two Mexican presidents, Enrique Pena Nieto, the incumbent, and Felipe Calderon, the former head of state.

The Mexican government has reacted cautiously to those revelations, calling the targeting of the presidents "unacceptable" and "illegitimate" yet its statements haven't been accompanied by any real action. Pena Nieto has demanded an investigation but hasn't cancelled any visits or contacts, a strategy that Mexico's opposition and some analysts see as weak and submissive.

"Other countries, like Brazil, have had responses that are much more resounding than our country," said Sen. Gabriela Cuevas of Mexico's conservative National Action Party.

In part, this is because of Mexico's much-closer economic and political ties to the United States, which the Mexican government apparently does not want to endanger.

"It is true that we depend a lot more on the United States; Brazil is further away," Mexican columnist Guadalupe Loaeza wrote on Tuesday.

Beyond politics, the NSA espionage has been greeted with relative equanimity in Mexico, whose people are long used to the government's extremely close intelligence co-operation with the United States in the war against the drug cartels.

"The country we should really be spying on now is New Zealand, to see if we can get enough information so the national team can win a qualifying berth at the World Cup," Loaeza wrote, referring to the 13 November game between the two rivals.

Read more on:    nsa  |  francois hollande  |  angela merkel  |  barack obama  |  dilma rousseff  |  france  |  us  |  mexico  |  brazil  |  germany  |  espionage  |  privacy

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