European Officials Infuriated by Alleged NSA Spying on Friendly Diplomats

A report in Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine that the U.S. bugged E.U. offices set off a political firestorm, but the consequences remain unclear

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Edward Snowden might have vanished from sight since he supposedly hopped a flight from Hong Kong to Moscow on June 23. But the explosive leaks from the former NSA contractor were in plain sight this weekend, when revelations emerged that the U.S. had allegedly bugged E.U. diplomats in New York City, Washington and Brussels. The news ignited splenetic fury from European politicians, who say the allegations could sour their trade negotiations with Washington. “It is shocking that the U.S. should take action against its nearest allies comparable to measures taken in the past by the KGB in the Soviet Union,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz told reporters at Brussels’ military airport on Sunday, adding that he felt “like the representative of an enemy.”

The story broke Saturday on the website of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, which has a longer account of the details in its print cover story on Monday. To E.U. officials, however, even the sketchy outline was scandalous enough. The magazine alleges that among Snowden’s documents is proof that the NSA planted bugs in the offices of the E.U.’s mission to the U.N. and in its embassy in Washington, and that the agency hacked into the E.U.’s computer network, allowing the U.S. to eavesdrop on closed-door meetings and to read internal e-mails. “An NSA document dated September 2010 explicitly names the Europeans as a ‘location target,’” says Der Spiegel’s article, whose first byline is Laura Poitras, the New York filmmaker whom Snowden initially contacted in January, saying he had information to leak. It also says the U.S. hacked into the communications system at the Brussels headquarters of the European Council, a highly secured building where leaders gather for summits, and where each of the union’s 27 member countries has offices. To some E.U. officials, that detail might come as little surprise: five years ago, E.U. security officers traced suspected telephone hacking back to the NSA offices in the headquarters of NATO in Brussels, according to Der Spiegel.

(MORE: Julian Assange: Snowden Is ‘Healthy, Safe and in Good Spirits’)

On Sunday, some E.U. officials were furious not only at the thought that the U.S. might have spied on them, but that Obama had assured them in mid-June that the NSA surveillance program was aimed at hunting terrorists, not at spying on citizens in friendly countries — assurances that E.U. officials then used to calm the mounting disquiet over the NSA’s Prism program in their home countries. The NSA leaks have evoked particular anger in Germany, where millions still remember life under East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, which bugged thousands of citizens to sniff out anti-Communist dissidents. Protesters in Berlin marched during President Obama’s visit there in mid-June, holding posters showing him wearing headphones, with the caption “Stasi 2.0.” Late Sunday night, Der Spiegel reported that Snowden’s leaked documents show NSA surveillance of Germany was more intense than of any other E.U. country, with as many as 20 million phone calls and 10 million online data exchanges collected “on normal days.”

The weekend’s revelations sparked condemnation from politicians across the region. “If it is true that E.U. representations in Brussels and Washington were indeed tapped by the American secret service, it can hardly be explained with the argument of fighting terrorism,” Germany’s Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in a statement on Sunday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the surveillance was “totally unacceptable,” while Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called it “disgusting” and said that “the U.S. would be better off monitoring its secret services than its allies.”

(MORE: Snowden and Putin: NSA Whistle-Blower Fate Is in Russian President’s Hands)

Yet for all the E.U.’s Sturm und Drang, it was not immediately clear on Sunday what the real consequences would be for the U.S., should the allegations prove true. “We have requested more information from the U.S. authorities,” Richard Freedman, spokesman for the European Parliament’s President Schulz, told TIME on Sunday, reflecting the slow-moving nature of the E.U. political system. “We will debate this on Wednesday in the E.U. Parliament and then we will have to see.”

One option for E.U. officials who wish to confront the U.S. is to link the NSA leaks to ongoing talks over a broad free-trade deal. Although there is no clear link between the two issues, E.U. politicians suggested on Sunday that the spying allegations could give them more leverage in their negotiations, which began earlier this month and which they hope to conclude next year. “One consequence [of the Snowden leak] for sure is that people will ask, ‘Does it make sense to negotiate a free-trade agreement without clear rules about data protection and control?’” Schulz told reporters in Brussels. And in Luxembourg, the E.U. Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding said, “We cannot negotiate over a big transatlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators.”

(MORE: On the Run to Moscow, Edward Snowden Keeps Americans Guessing)

Still, with European countries suffering from high unemployment and years of recession, officials would be loath to jeopardize the free-trade deal with the U.S. Both E.U. and U.S. officials (Obama included) have hailed the prospect of a transatlantic trade agreement as having the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and to boost the E.U.’s economy by 0.5% a year. And while a few small obstacles remain, like France’s push to protect its film industry, no one has suggested a serious rollback of the plan.

While the NSA allegations are unprecedented in the era of cyberintelligence, a similar incident 14 years ago caused no lasting damage to the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. In 1999, the so-called Echelon program, a mammoth Cold War surveillance system based in Fort Meade, Md., and Britain’s surveillance headquarters GCHQ in Cheltenham, was used to spy on European industries, giving their Anglo-American competitors an edge. Schulz on Sunday compared the incident with this weekend’s NSA leak, telling reporters, “The only explanation for me is to listen to debates about economic strategy of the E.U. in relation to the U.S. market.”

When the Echelon news broke in the European Parliament in 2000, it was a major scandal. More than a decade later, however, it is all but forgotten. “The European Parliament made some kind of report, but the issue died down after angry reactions,” the European Parliament’s press adviser Marcin Grajewski told TIME on Sunday. “Somehow, it lost its relevance.” U.S. officials must be hoping Snowden’s leaks will head the same way.

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