The EU demanded answers from the US yesterday over allegations Washington had bugged its offices, the latest spying claim attributed to fugitive former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
The report in Der Spiegel is likely to further strain relations between the US and Europe, shortly after they launched formal negotiations to create what would be the world’s biggest free-trade area.
Der Spiegel said its report, which detailed covert surveillance by the NSA on EU diplomatic missions, was based on confidential documents, some of which it had been able to consult via Snowden.
“We have immediately been in contact with the US authorities in Washington DC and in Brussels and have confronted them with the press reports, “ the European Commission said in a statement. “They have told us they are checking on the accuracy of the information released yesterday and will come back to us.”
One document, dated September 2010, describes how the NSA kept tabs on the EU’s mission in Washington, Der Spiegel said.
Microphones were installed in the building and its computer networks infiltrated.
The EU delegation at the UN was subject to similar surveillance, Der Spiegel said, adding that the spying also extended to the bloc’s Brussels headquarters.
It said the leaked documents referred to the Europeans as “targets,” in intelligence activity reminiscent of the Cold War.
US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes refused to be drawn into commenting directly on the allegations in a briefing in Johannesburg on Saturday, but said it was “worth noting” the US was “very close” to EU security services.
Germany said the US must confirm whether the reports were true.
“If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-US relations,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said in a statement, demanding full and speedy clarification from the US authorities.
The US authorities issued an arrest warrant last month for Snowden after he revealed details of NSA’s so-called PRISM program which collects and analyzes information from Internet and telephone users around the world, with access to data from Google, Yahoo and other Internet firms.
US officials say the information gathered is vital in the fight against global terrorism, but the scale of the program has raised deep concerns around the world.
US spying was “out of control,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.
“The US would do better to monitor its intelligence services instead of its allies,” he said.
Der Spiegel referred to an incident more than five years ago when EU security experts discovered telephone and online bugging devices at the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels.
In 2003, the EU announced it had found phone taps in the building targeting the offices of several countries, including Britain, France and Germany.
Snowden himself remains in political limbo at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport after flying in from Hong Kong on Sunday last week, unable to fly on or exit the airport without legal travel documents.
French MEP Jean-Luc Melenchon yesterday said after the latest spying claims emerged that France should grant Snowden asylum and called for a suspension of all trade negotiations with the US.
Brussels and Washington last month launched negotiations on a free-trade agreement which would add tens of billions of US dollars to the EU and US economies.