A new trans-Atlantic diplomatic storm may be brewing.
The National Security Agency eavesdropped on confidential conversations of French President Francois Hollande, his two predecessors and other senior French officials, according to top-secret NSA documents released on Tuesday by Wikileaks, the online whistleblowing organization.
The latest revelation of NSA spying comes nearly two years after U.S.-German relations were roiled by documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that showed that the agency had monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Only last week German prosecutors announced that they were ending a criminal probe into the matter.
The new release of the documents could well cause a similar headache for President Barack Obama, even though France, Israel and other key allies are widely believed to spy heavily on the United States. The United States and France work together on many fronts, including negotiations on an accord on Iran’s nuclear program, fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups and forging NATO and European Union responses to a more assertive Russia.
The revelations also could complicate relations between France and Germany. One of the documents concerned secret talks between French officials and German opposition leaders.
Other conversations monitored by the NSA involved the Greek financial crisis, a French effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, French frustrations with what was seen as weak U.S. leadership on coping with the Great Recession and topics, including U.S. spying on France, to be raised at a 2010 summit between Obama and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“The French president will express his frustration that Washington has backed away from its proposed intelligence cooperation agreement,” said a March 24, 2010, summary of a conversation the NSA monitored between Sarkozy’s diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, and the then-French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont. “As Vimont and Levitte understand it, the main sticking point is the U.S. desire to continue spying on France.”
The NSA provided some of the material it collected to Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, a group of English-speaking allies with whom the United States shares intelligence that is known as “the Five Eyes.”
A WikiLeaks statement did not reveal how the organization acquired the documents. But a member of the group accompanied Edward Snowden on a flight from Hong Kong to Moscow in May 2013 after the former NSA contractor leaked thousands of top-secret documents to American and British journalists.
The statement said that WikiLeaks cooperated on the release of the documents with the left-wing French newspaper Liberation and with Mediapart, an online French investigative and opinion journal.
“The French people have a right to know that their elected government is subject to hostile surveillance from a supposed ally,” the statement quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying. “French readers can expect more timely and important revelations in the near future.”
“We are not going to comment on specific intelligence allegations,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. “As a general matter, we do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose. This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike.”
There was no immediate response from the government of Hollande, who succeeded Sarkozy in 2012.
WikiLeaks released five NSA documents, calling them “Espionnage Elysee,” a reference to the Elysee Palace, France’s White House.
It was unclear from the documents how the NSA eavesdropped on the French officials, although one mentioned “foreign satellite.” It also was marked “unconventional,” as were three other documents.
The most recent document – dated May 22, 2012 – summarized a discussion in which Hollande asked his former prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, to convene a secret meeting of top officials to discuss the consequences to the French economy and French banks of a default by Greece on its international loans and its withdrawal from the use of the Euro.
“Hollande stressed that the meeting would be secret. (COMMENT: The French president seems worried that if word were to get out that Paris is seriously considering the possibility of a Greek exit, it would deepen the crisis),” said the document.
The French president also sought meetings between French officials and members of Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party. Ayrault asked that the meetings be kept secret to avoid “diplomatic problems” should Merkel “find out that that Hollande is going behind her back to meet with the German opposition,” the document said.
The document noted that “earlier reporting” – an apparent reference to previous NSA spying – showed that Hollande was frustrated with a meeting the previous week with Merkel in which “nothing of substance was achieved.”
Another 2006 document outlined a conversation in which then-French President Jacques Chiraq instructed his foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, to push for the appointment of Terje Roed-Larsen, a veteran Norwegian diplomat who served as a special U.N. envoy to Lebanon, to be the deputy U.N. secretary general.
A June 10, 2011, summary of a communications intercept disclosed how Sarkozy intended to launch a French initiative to restart stalled face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He was concerned, however, about seeking the participation of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union, a group known as the Quartet.
“It was also disclosed in a conversation between Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Alain Juppe, that consideration was given to including the Quartet in the process,” said the document. “However, they were wary about such an invitation because that group might not bow to Paris’ wishes.”
The pair were concerned that “not being a member of the Quartet . . . France would have no control over what transpired in one of its meetings, and if the group elected not to support direct talks, the initiative would be a non-starter,” the document said.
Sarkozy considered asking then-Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev to join him “for a possible joint initiative without the United States, or as another option, issuing an ultimatum to the U.S. President regarding Palestinian statehood,” according to the document.
“The ultimatum would demand that Washington back France’s efforts to restart the peace process or France would not side with the U.S. in September (presumably referring to the deliberations in the U.N. General Assembly on Palestinian statehood,” it continued.
Sarkozy, who supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, publicly unveiled his initiative in a February 2010 news conference in Paris with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.