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Will fallout of ‘spying on friends’ allegations help change U.S. surveillance?

October 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At a European Union summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel characterized the reported American monitoring of her cellphone as a "severe breach of trust." Jeffrey Brown gets background from Margaret Warner and Luke Baker of Reuters about how European leaders are responding to U.S. spying allegations.
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GWEN IFILL: A usually fractured European Union summit expressed common outrage today over recent allegations that the U.S. has been spying on its allies.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a busy world leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel checks her cell phone during high-level meetings, in her car and while waiting for the elevator.

Today, at a European Union summit in Brussels, Merkel said her trust in the U.S. had been damaged by reports that her calls were monitored.

ANGELA MERKEL, German Chancellor (through interpreter): I have made it clear to the president of the United States that spying on friends is not acceptable at all. I said that when he was in Berlin in July and also yesterday in a telephone call. It’s not just about me, but about every German citizen.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. ambassador to Germany was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin to give an explanation. German officials said if the reports are true, the relationship is badly damaged.

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RONALD POFALLA, German Chancellery (through interpreter): As far as I am concerned, it would be a severe breach of trust.

GUIDO WESTERWELLE, German Foreign Minister (through interpreter): Spying on close friends and partners is totally unacceptable. This undermines trust and this can harm our friendship. We expect that these activities that have been reported will be comprehensively investigated. We need the truth now.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney again declined to say exactly what happened in the past, focusing instead on the present and future.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: We are not going to comment publicly on every specified alleged intelligence activity. And as a matter of policy, we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.

As I mentioned yesterday, the president spoke with Chancellor Merkel, reassured her that the United States is not and will not monitor the chancellor’s communications.

JEFFREY BROWN: Similar allegations also surfaced in France this week, when the newspaper Le Monde published a report that the National Security Agency collected 70 million phone calls and texts in France in the matter of a month.

These and other reports stem from information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contract worker at the NSA. Brazil has also accused the U.S. of spying on its leaders and citizens, which led its president, Dilma Rousseff, to cancel a state visit to Washington last month. The White House denied that her personal communications were being monitored.

Joining me now to discuss the fallout over the U.S. surveillance program, from Brussels, Luke Baker, bureau chief for the Reuters news agency, and our own chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner.

Well, Luke Baker, how big a deal the this among leaders meeting in Brussels? And do you get any sense as to whether leaders there are actually surprised, or is it more because it’s become so public?

LUKE BAKER, Reuters: Well, I think there is a great deal of surprise, to be honest. And I think it is a very big deal.

The leaders when they turned up this evening for this summit, a good — of the 28, a good sort of dozen or so made a point of addressing this issue to the press as they arrived, which is pretty unusual to stick on one theme and all of them to express a fairly common message, which was that they stood by Angela Merkel, they were shocked by what they heard, and that they would do whatever they could to support her in her position, but they wanted to get all the facts straight first.

But, on the other point, how surprised they really are, I think it’s true to a certain extent everyone expects a certain amount of espionage. In this case, I think what’s really struck people and surprised them that is the almost personal nature of it, that it was targeted at, you know, the leader of Germany, her personal mobile phone. It’s a work phone, but she is an avid user of her phone. It’s with her all the time. She text messages all the time, so this sense of a very personal, direct, if you like, to-the-heart level of eavesdropping or espionage, if it’s true.

So, in that respect, too, I think there was a very defensive, kind of surprised reaction from some of her colleagues in among the European leaders.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret, we heard Jay Carney again today avoid saying anything about past actions, right? What’s been the reaction within the administration to the outrage coming from Europe?

MARGARET WARNER: American officials call it outrage theater. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Theater?

MARGARET WARNER: Outrage theater.

And they believe it’s explained by the fact that every country knows that even friendly countries spy on one another’s leaders, but the fact that it is so very public. That said, it has been embarrassing to the White House. The president has had to spend this time making phone calls to Hollande, President Hollande, to President Merkel, promising this review of the way intelligence is collected.

From the people I talk to, they’re most worried not about the relationship so much with longtime allies in Europe, with whom there’s a 60-year relationship, but, say, relationships with countries like Brazil, a rising power in Latin America, the U.S. is trying to build a better relationship. And one person said to me that real — this has really destroyed trust there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it understood, Margaret, that this goes on among governments, or this somehow different because of what we heard, because of the personal nature with Angela Merkel?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I asked that of a couple of people.

And one person said, look, the outrage would be if we only — if we’re interested in what a leader thinks about a terrorism negotiation we’re in or an economic negotiation we’re in, the outrage would be if we said we will only monitor her office phone, but not her cell phone. The fact is, world leaders use their cell phones all the time.

And, in fact, one former intelligence official, a very senior one, said one of the hardest things now is that people in the U.S. government are careless about their use of cell phones. It’s much more convenient than saying, I have to wait to get to a secure line. Information in this country and the world moves so fast that you always see these leaders on their cell phones at summits and when they get in the car.

People expect answers. They don’t — you can’t say, I’m waiting until I get back to my secure line. And so they recognize — the officials I have talked to say every leader should recognize that this — cell phones in particular are very vulnerable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Luke Baker, beyond voicing objections, what kind of repercussions might there be? What specific foreign policy issues or actions might Germany or others take?

LUKE BAKER: Well, there are a few issues here.

One of the things, first of all, that I should say is that I think the other element of this is from Angela Merkel’s point of view, her past, growing up in East Germany and the reminder in a way of the past history, that Stasi, the secret police in East Germany, and their eavesdropping on effectively the vast majority of citizens.

So, for a woman like Angela Merkel, who grew up in that environment, the other element of this which I think is quite powerful and hits home is that sort of — that sense of being monitored like in the past that Germany certainly thought it had put behind it.

But going on to what — your point, there’s — there are various elements of negotiation, legislative and trade negotiations going on at this point which are critical between the United States and the European Union. Of course, there is the trade — free trade negotiations which have only just started and which have already hit some rocky patches, partly because of the shutdown of the U.S. government

And there are already calls from within Germany for those negotiations to be suspended. Now, I really don’t expect that to happen, but I do think that there is a likelihood that this will be used as a bit of a bargaining chip from the European side to see what sort of concessions over time can be extracted from the American side because of the espionage.

But also there’s currently regulations going through the European Union sort of system, the draft regulations there on data privacy. It’s a very sensitive issue for the United States. It would have potentially a direct impact on major U.S. companies like Facebook and Google and also on the amount of intelligence — not intelligence, sorry — but data that is shared ultimately with the U.S. government.

And that is, I know, a concern for U.S. officials here. And if there’s a push by Germany, which I think there may well be because Germany does feel that it wants to have very strict data privacy regulations, then we could see some action on that front as a result of this that would, I think, be a concern to the United States going forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, Margaret, is there concern here over such actions, and is there an expectation that U.S. surveillance might change because of all that has come out…

(CROSSTALK)

MARGARET WARNER: That’s two questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two — two — it’s two questions.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, so the first is, the Americans believe the Europeans really want this trade agreement. They see it as a way to boost lagging growth in the European continent.

And among the major drivers has been Chancellor Merkel, along with David Cameron of Britain. So they actually don’t expect — one said to me, thank God this happened, this came out after the German elections. So they don’t expect big problems on that front.

What they do expect is the other thing Luke mentioned, which is the separate data, privacy legislation moving through the E.U., that the European parliamentarians will now be hard-pressed not to be very tough on American business, and the biggest losers could be American business.

In terms of whether something will change, as President Obama has assured these world leaders he’s going to look at, no one knows, because the president will decide. But several experienced hands in this business told me they could imagine, when you have got the president saying over and over again, look, just because we have this technical capability doesn’t mean we always have to use it, that — that intelligence agencies take their guidance from the policy-makers in the White House.

And they could imagine the president saying, you know, when it comes to bugging the personal — the cell phone of a friendly leader, do we really get more out of it than the risk than that it will be exposed?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. OK, Margaret Warner here with us and Luke Baker in Brussels, thanks so much.