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International Bugging: Why The U.S. Snoops


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk about the glaring lack of diversity in Silicon Valley and what one group is trying to do about it. That's in just a minute.

But first, the leaks from Edward Snowden are apparently still rolling in. Snowden used to work for an NSA - National Security Agency - contractor, and he's currently in Russia. Today, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo says it's obtained documents showing the NSA monitored more than 60 million phone calls in that country in just one month. That comes just a week after allegations that the NSA monitored the communications of 35 world leaders, and Germany's Angela Merkel says she's one of them. Some European heads of state say this alleged spying is completely unacceptable and shocking. We wanted to get some overseas perspectives on the story, so we turn now to two European journalists who've been watching it closely. Gregor Peter Schmitz is the Washington bureau chief for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. He joins us by phone from Brussels where he's reporting on the EU summit.

GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ: Hi, thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: And here in our DC studio, we have Laure Mandeville. She's U.S. bureau chief of the French newspaper Le Figaro. Laure, thanks so much for coming in.

LAURE MANDEVILLE: Hi, thank you for inviting me.

HEADLEE: Greg, let's begin with you. You're probably hearing directly from some diplomats in Brussels that were there from the EU summit. What are you hearing?

SCHMITZ: Well, I mean, obviously the latest revelations have been a game changer again, I would say. I mean, we have been reporting on this story now for a few months. So it's not the first revelation that is coming out. But I think the public opinion that has already soured on the Americans a while ago has now dramatically shifted because now, even the leaders like Angela Merkel, like members of her own party, that, in the past, tried to defend the Americans or tried to ignore the subject during the electoral campaign, are now forced or compelled to address it.

And I think there is a real outrage, not just in Brussels, but in several European capitals. I think my colleague will talk about the current mood in France, where President Hollande was actually pretty outspoken here at the Brussels summit and was pushing for more stricter data regulation and data protection in Europe. So, yeah, there is real outrage.

HEADLEE: And so, Laure, let's go to you and talk about the reaction from France. The French president, Francois Hollande, has called for a new code of conduct on spying. What does he mean?

MANDEVILLE: Well, I guess he would like a more transparent cooperation between the U.S. and the allies and not spying on presidents which are allies' countries. I think, basically, the government in France is trying to respond to public opinion. Public opinion in France is aware that spying is something which has been going back thousands of years, and the French are people who are aware of the importance of the government.

And they have this idea that government has to be strong, has to do some spying. You know, they are, in that sense, not necessarily absolutely outraged. The French are aware that their own government is also - has some programs of spying. The difference is the magnitude, I think.

HEADLEE: Let me play you a comment here from P.J. Crowley. He's a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, and this is what he told NPR over the weekend.

P.J. CROWLEY: Europeans have a different view of privacy than Americans do. So I think there is a difference of attitude or perspective on this. That said, I don't think it should shock anyone that governments spy on each other.

HEADLEE: Gregor, he says two things there. Number one, people shouldn't be surprised by this, that this is going on. And European heads of state who are complaining about the U.S. are also, to a certain extent, overseeing programs of domestic and international spying. And the other thing he says is that there's a different view of privacy in Europe than the United States. What do you think that means? And if you think - do think that's true?

SCHMITZ: I think that is a very important distinction actually 'cause it is true. I mean, most high-ranking officials and politicians are of course aware of the programs that my colleague was alluding to, and actually, that came up during a discussion at the EU summit. Somebody who participated told me that they were debating that over dinner, and they were saying, well, we are not exactly angels here - and the person that was spied on was called Angela. So they were admitting themselves that any moment a German, British, French, Spanish, Italian Edward Snowden could come up and could maybe disclose stuff that has been going on in Europe for years. So they know that they are not innocent themselves.

However, I think you really have to distinguish between politicians and the general public, and there is a dramatically different view of privacy in Europe. I mean, and I think that has two reasons. A, it's basically just our history, particularly in Germany where people sometimes lived through two dictatorships in a row - first the Nazi dictatorship, then the Communist dictatorship. So they are very, very wary of spying programs, of state-controlled surveillance. And the other thing is that even in everyday life, even people that might not have that historical baggage, the way people deal with big data and with privacy is just very different in Europe. Starting with credit cards, actually - I mean, far fewer Europeans or Germans own credit cards. So they are much more reluctant to hand over their data to credit card providers, to phone companies and also to, frankly, to people running political campaigns. I mean, we are always - we were fascinated with the big data development in the American campaign.

But at the same time, people were also a little freaked out because they are concerned that that trend might reach Europe, as well, in the near future. But they are very reluctant to even tell people who they voted for or to hand out personal data. When you go to a hair cutter, somebody asks for your e-mail address, that is basically unheard of in Europe when it's a regular occurrence in the United States.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with the Washington bureau chief of Der Spiegel, who you just heard - Gregor Peter Schmitz - and U.S. bureau chief of Le Figaro, Laure Mandeville. And, Laure, let's examine this just a little further 'cause there may be some Americans who are thinking, wow, look at those naive Europeans who are so shocked to find that they're being spied on. And I want to be clear that there's no evidence that any phone calls were listened to. What the NSA collected was data on when the phone calls were made and the phone numbers. So let's be clear on that - bad enough, I grant you, but there may be this idea that Europeans look a little bit naive.

MANDEVILLE: Well, maybe. And I think, in a way, there is some kind of naivety, you know, in thinking that in a time of Internet, of cell phones, of everything being absolutely transparent - I think the new phenomenon is that we have a transparent planet and that we are totally naked in front of governments, big companies, which are controlling these assets, these technologies. And I think people - this outrage that we are seeing in Europe is actually the realization of that. And I think the Americans are not outraged to the same extent, but why is that? I'm not totally sure that the Americans have a different approach to privacy, but I think that there has been a sort of absolutely key moment in the American history recently, which is 9/11. And that after 9/11, the Americans have, to a certain extent, decided to have this trade-off between privacy and security.

And that basically, when you see the polling results - you know, polls in the U.S., still a majority of Americans - after the Snowden revelations about domestic programs in the U.S. - were saying, OK, we are worried about privacy, but we are more worried about security. So we are worried that the NSA's handling data about us, but if they can catch terrorists - so there is this idea, you know, of a trade-off. And I think in Europe, people are not so aware of all the cooperation which exists between the intelligence services of the U.S. and Europe, which is also benefiting to Europeans to a certain extent. And they see more the cost. The cost is that they see an ally, but still a foreign country...


MANDEVILLE: ...Spying on them and being able to gather a huge amount of data about them. And I think the Americans would be not very happy if France had the same capacity, frankly. I think if the Americans were in our place and they would certainly discover that there is this Big Brother Europe or Big Brother France or Germany being able to...

HEADLEE: Russia would be the worst I think, yeah, but still.

MANDEVILLE: Russia would be terrible. China would be terrible.


MANDEVILLE: Remember, in 2010, the outrage in the U.S. because they were discovering that the - there was this hacking process.

HEADLEE: Right. Well, let me bring this back to you, Gregor, because there has been comments from members of the intelligence community in the U.S. that the first place many European governments come to when they have a concern about terrorism - when they have a concern about a possible bomb, a possible threat or something occurs - the first place they come is to the U.S. to get our help in terms of intelligence gathering. What's the response to that?

SCHMITZ: That is true, and there has been a tremendous amount of cooperation between many European countries and the U.S. However, I think what you have to bear in mind is that, A, the perception of the war on terror and of the limits of the war on terror, and if maybe America has overreacted in that war on terror - it's different in Europe. And particularly if you look at public opinion, but also increasingly if you talk to government officials in Europe people just say, well, they are basically punishing themselves now because they have taken this security apparatus to a level that they can't even control anymore. And I don't think it's a fair argument to say only because European authorities reach out to the Americans when they want more information on an alleged spier, so that gives the government the right to spy on all regular citizens to an extent that is shocking.

There were revelations about this spying incident in France in the past week, when the numbers were just staggering, of 70 million calls that American authorities apparently eavesdropped on in just one month. So I think that is what scares people. I don't think people are opposed to intelligence gathering in the war on terror. What they are afraid of is this just very random, indiscriminatory collection of major data, which gives the impression that everybody can be a target at any given moment.

HEADLEE: Well, what I'm hearing from both of you is it's not the existence of the program, but the size. Washington bureau chief, Der Spiegel, Gregor Peter Schmitz, joining us by phone from Brussels. And U.S. bureau chief of Le Figaro, Laure Mandeville joining us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much to both of you.

MANDEVILLE: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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