France summoned the U.S. ambassador to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday after WikiLeaks published documents late Tuesday that it says show the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped on the last three French presidents, releasing material which appeared to capture officials in Paris talking candidly about Greece's economy, relations with Germany — and, ironically, American espionage.
The release of the documents, in collaboration with French daily newspaper Libération and investigative website Mediapart, was serious enough to prompt an emergency meeting of President Francois Hollande's defense council, according to a presidential aide. The council, meeting Wednesday morning, includes France's top security officials.
“This involves unacceptable acts that have already given rise to discussions between the United States and France,” Hollande said in a statement after the emergency meeting.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday stressed the United States' commitment to end past practices that were considered 'unacceptable' by its allies during a phone call with Hollande, the French president’s office said.
“President Obama reiterated unequivocally his firm commitment ... to end the practices that may have happened in the past and that are considered unacceptable among allies,” a statement from Hollande's office said.
French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll also said that France is sending the country's top intelligence coordinator to the United States shortly, to ensure that promises not to spy on its leaders — made after earlier NSA spying revelations in 2013 and 2014 — have been kept.
At a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Le Foll said, “We reminded all the ministers to be vigilant in their conversations.”
Jane Hartley was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry, according to French diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named.
WikiLeaks, on its website, listed the contents of what it said were five selected “top” intercepts of communications involving French presidents — on subjects including a top U.N. appointment, the Middle East peace process, and the handling of the euro crisis — between 2006 and 2012.
The site also listed in a chart what were said to be phone numbers listed by NSA as top French official “intercept targets,” including that of the French president's own cellphone, with some digits crossed out.
An aide to Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, said the former president considers these methods unacceptable, generally speaking, and especially so from an ally like the U.S. The aide was not authorized to comment on the record.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said he was confident the documents were authentic, noting that WikiLeaks' previous mass disclosures — including a large cache of Saudi diplomatic memos released last week — have proven to be accurate.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the American government would not comment on the specifics of the leak. “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,” he said.
Ever since documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed in 2013 that the NSA had been eavesdropping on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it had been understood that the U.S. had been using the digital spying agency to intercept the conversations of allied politicians. Also in 2013, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil was summoned by Brazilian authorities amid allegations that the NSA had directly spied on President Dilma Rousseff as well.
Late on Tuesday, several French politicians posted messages to social media voicing their disgust with the reports.
“And one more time we find out that the U.S. has no allies, they only have targets or vassals,” Socialist lawmaker Jean-Jacques Urvoas said in messages posted on Twitter in both French and English.
After the Merkel disclosures, Obama ordered a wholesale review of NSA spying on allies, after officials suggested that senior White House officials had not approved many operations that were largely on autopilot. Following the review, U.S. officials said Obama had ordered a halt to spying on the leaders of allied countries, if not their aides.
Hrafnsson on Tuesday refused to comment on how WikiLeaks had obtained the documents and declined to go into specifics about what else might be appearing in the French press, but said, “they can expect more revelations in the near future.”
The timing of Tuesday's release did not appear to be accidental: It came a day before the French Parliament is expected to definitively pass a controversial security bill legalizing broad surveillance, particularly of terrorism suspects.
Privacy advocates and human rights groups have protested the new French surveillance bill, which allows intelligence services to vacuum up metadata in hopes of preventing imminent attacks. But the government argues that it is just updating a 1991 law to grapple with modern threats and has tried to distance itself from U.S.-style mass surveillance.
The bill was proposed last year but deadly January attacks at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris gave it added urgency for the government.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press