President Obama pledges to continue close cooperation with France on matters of intelligence and security
(PARIS) — Embarrassed by leaked conversations of three successive French presidents and angered by new evidence of uninhibited American spying, France demanded answers Wednesday from the Obama administration and called for an intelligence “code of conduct” between allies.
France’s foreign minister summoned the U.S. ambassador to respond to the WikiLeaks revelations, as French eyes fixed on the top floor of the U.S. Embassy after reports that a nest of NSA surveillance equipment was concealed behind elaborately painted windows there, just down the block from the presidential Elysee Palace.
“Commitments were made by our American allies. They must be firmly recalled and strictly respected,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. “Being loyal doesn’t mean falling into line.”
President Barack Obama told French President Francois Hollande in a phone conversation Wednesday that the U.S. wasn’t targeting his communications. The White House said Obama told Hollande that the U.S. was abiding by a commitment Obama made in 2013 not to spy on the French leader after Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of NSA surveillance powers.
The White House said Obama also pledged to continue close cooperation with France on matters of intelligence and security.
If not a surprise, the latest revelations put both countries in something of a quandary.
France’s counter-espionage capabilities were called into question at the highest level. The United States, meanwhile, was shown not only to be eavesdropping on private conversations of its closest allies but also to be unable to keep its own secrets.
“The rule in espionage — even between allies — is that everything is allowed, as long as it’s not discovered,” Arnaud Danjean, a former analyst for France’s spy agency and currently a lawmaker in the European Parliament, told France-Info radio. “The Americans have been caught with their hand in the jam jar a little too often, and this discredits them.”
The French aren’t denying the need for good intelligence — they have long relied on U.S. intel cooperation to fight terrorism for example, and are trying to beef up their own capabilities, too.
The release of the spying revelations appeared to be timed to coincide with a final vote Wednesday in the French Parliament on a bill allowing broad new surveillance powers, in particular to counter threats of French extremists linked to foreign jihad.
Hollande, calling the U.S. spying an “unacceptable” security breach, convened two emergency meetings as a result of the disclosures about the NSA’s spying.
The documents appear to capture top French officials in Paris between 2006 and 2012 talking candidly about Greece’s economy, relations with Germany, and American spying on allies.
The top floor of the U.S. Embassy, visible from France’s Elysee Palace, reportedly was filled with spying equipment hidden behind tromp l’oeil windows, according to the Liberation newspaper, which partnered with WikiLeaks and the website Mediapart on the documents.
U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry, where she promised to provide quick responses to French concerns, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. He said he understood eavesdropping for counterterrorist reasons, “but this has nothing to do with that.”
Hollande was sending his top intelligence coordinator to the U.S. to ensure that promises made after earlier NSA spying revelations in 2013 and 2014 have been kept.
Valls said the U.S. must do everything it can, and quickly, to “repair the damage” to U.S.-French relations from the revelations.
“If the fact of the revelations today does not constitute a real surprise for anyone, that in no way lessens the emotion and the anger. They are legitimate. France will not tolerate any action threatening its security and fundamental interests,” he said.
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters, “France does not listen in on its allies.” He added, “we reminded all (government) ministers to be vigilant in their conversations.”
Two of the cables — dealing with then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, his predecessor — were marked “USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL” suggesting that the material was meant to be shared with Britain, Canada and other members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
The disclosures, which emerged late Tuesday, mean that France has joined Germany on the list of U.S. allies targeted by the NSA.
An aide to Sarkozy told The Associated Press that the former president considers these methods unacceptable. There was no immediate comment from Chirac.
As the lower house of parliament prepared to vote Wednesday on the new surveillance measures, the French government again denied accusations that it wants massive NSA-style powers.
“I will not let it be said that this law could call into question our liberties and that our practices will be those that we condemn today,” Valls said.
And while the French rhetoric was lively Wednesday, the high-level U.S.-French meetings showed that the countries remain important allies, and suggested they were ready to paper over their differences.
In Germany, revelations that the NSA was listening to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone weighed on relations with the U.S. for a while but it has very much receded from the top of the political leaders’ agenda.
Le Foll, the French government spokesman, who was heading Wednesday to Washington on a previously scheduled trip, said it wasn’t a diplomatic rupture, riffing that France was sending not an aircraft carrier to the U.S. but a replica of the Hermione, the ship that carried General Marquis de Lafayette from France to America in 1780 to offer help in the Revolution.
But, he added, “when you see this between allied countries it’s unacceptable and, I would add, incomprehensible.”
Philippe Sotto and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.