France hits back at US spying allegations

France on Wednesday slammed as "unlikely" US allegations that European spy agencies shared phone call records with US intelligence, as a transatlantic surveillance row intensified.

France hits back at US spying allegations
France has slammed allegations from the US that it had handed over phone records on their citizens to NSA spy chiefs. Photo: Jim Watson / AFP

General Keith Alexander, head of the US National Security Agency, on Tuesday took onlookers at a Congress hearing by surprise when he dismissed allegations that his agency had swept up data on millions of phone calls in Europe as "completely false".

Instead, he turned the tables on countries such as France, Germany and Spain – which have reacted with fierce anger to the spying allegations – saying that in many cases European spy agencies had handed phone call records over to them.

"The NSA director's denials don't seem likely," government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said after a cabinet meeting.

She pointed to a pledge made last week by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose own phone was reportedly tapped, to reach an understanding with the United States on the conduct of intelligence gathering among allies.

"We must shine the light on the practices of the past and make sure that things work out for the best in the future… We cannot let doubt set in between partners," she added.

The allegations of US spying are based on information leaked by former US security contractor Edward Snowden and were published in European newspapers such as France's Le Monde and Germany's Der Spiegel.

They have rocked US President Barack Obama's administration, which claims to have repaired ties with key allies that frayed under former president George W. Bush.

But the outrage in Europe has been met with suspicion by some prominent US politicians, who say everyone spies on everyone at a time of anti-terror priorities.

Alexander and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Tuesday said the reports that triggered such fury were based on a misunderstanding of the information passed by Snowden.

France's foreign ministry, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it was specifically concerned about the "nature and scale of US wiretapping on our territory".

"Where our intelligence agencies' surveillance activities are concerned, they are strictly framed by the law," spokesman Romain Nadal said.

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NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden wants asylum in France

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, living in Russia since leaking a trove of classified documents showing the scope of post-9/11 US government surveillance, wants to claim asylum in France.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden wants asylum in France
Edward Snowden takes part in a round table at the Council of Europe in March. Photo: Frederik Florin / AFP
Recalling he had already applied for French asylum in 2013 under former president Francois Hollande, Snowden, whose memoirs “Permanent Record” are published next Tuesday, told France Inter radio on Saturday that he hoped President Emmanuel Macron would grant him that right.
“The saddest thing of this whole story is that the only place an American whistleblower has the chance to be heard is not in Europe but here (in Russia),” Snowden said in a trailer of the interview to be broadcast in its entirety on Monday.
To date, more than a dozen countries have turned down requests to take in the 36-year-old, leading him to question their reasoning and “the system we live in”.
“Protecting whistleblowers is not a hostile act,” he said.
Snowden's memoirs are to be published in some 20 countries.
Snowden once worked for the CIA in addition to the National Security Agency but has been living in Russia since his 2013 megaleak.
Though praised as a whistleblower and a privacy advocate by his defenders, the United States accuses him of endangering national security and espionage charges could send him to prison for decades.
In a video on his Twitter account, Snowden said last week that “everything that we do now lasts forever, not because we want to remember but because we're no longer allowed to forget”.
“Helping to create that system is my greatest regret,” he said.