x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

US spying on EU allies a new low

The US electronic spying programme is alienating Washington's key allies in the war on terrorism.

The revelation last week that the US has been engaging in hostile intelligence gathering against some of its closest allies arguably represents a new low in Washington's relationship with the international community.

Germany was outraged by the report about the activity published in Der Spiegel and accused Washington of treating it "like a Cold War enemy". The German magazine reported that according to documents and slides leaked by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) spy service has been electronically infiltrating secure telephone and computer networks at the building in Brussels where the European Union holds its summits and has bugged the bloc's offices in Washington and at the UN headquarters in New York. The US is also accused of bugging the embassies of EU member states and other countries including South Korea, India and Turkey.

According to the classified documents, which are from 2010, the US places Germany, which is seen by Washington as the leading force in shaping EU policy, in the same surveillance category as Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia, specifically classifying it and other EU countries as "attack targets" for its spying programme.

The US government has been monitoring half a billion phone calls, text messages and emails in Germany each month, provoking at least one criminal complaint in the country, which has stringent privacy protection regulations, and others are expected.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, reacted angrily to the revelations, telling The Guardian newspaper: "This is absolutely unacceptable and must be stopped immediately. The American data-collection mania has achieved another quality by spying on EU officials and their meetings. Our trust is at stake."

Demanding that all spying activity be stopped immediately, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, told Der Spiegel: "If these reports are true, it's disgusting."

Martin Schulz, the head of the European parliament, feared that the spying allegations could have a severe impact on US relations with the EU and compared the NSA's programme to tactics used by the Soviet Union. He told The Guardian: "I feel treated as a European and a representative of a European institution like the representative of the enemy. Is this the basis for a constructive relationship on the basis of mutual trust? I think no. It is shocking that the United States takes measures against their most important and nearest allies, comparable to measures taken in the past by the KGB."

The US response, however, was unapologetic and did little to allay concerns that the allegations would undermine efforts to broker a planned free trade agreement between the EU and Washington that is potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Asked to comment on the programme on the sidelines of a meeting of the US, EU and South East Asian governments in Brunei, US Secretary of State John Kerry was dismissive, saying: "Every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that it is not unusual for lots of nations."

Washington's electronic spying programme appears to go so far beyond what is necessary to identify terrorists, extremists and organised criminals that it may ultimately undermine US national security by alienating the countries it relies on for cooperation and support.

As Germany's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper aptly put it: "Washington is shooting itself in the foot."

pmuir@thenational.ae