WASHINGTON -- European anger at reports that the United States has conducted surveillance of allies' telephone calls and emails glosses over a basic truth, former intelligence officials say: everyone does it.
"All governments collect information on nearly all governments," John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said in a phone interview. "The posture of most governments is, 'We want to collect as much info as we can, so we can be as fluent as we can when we make decisions.' It's just what governments do."
The Obama administration has been dogged by a series of disclosures detailing allegations of U.S. surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private mobile phone, of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon's email while in office, and of the collection of data on ordinary French citizens.
The leaks, all traced to documents stolen by fugitive security contractor Edward Snowden, led Obama to call Merkel Wednesday to assure her the U.S. government "is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor," White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing in Washington. The statement didn't address whether Merkel's mobile phone may have been monitored sometime in the past.
Complaints from Europe and Mexico about surveillance echo those from Brazil. Last month, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington after revelations that the National Security Agency had monitored her email and telephone exchanges with top aides.
U.S. surveillance activities, both foreign and domestic, spiked after the Sept. 11 attacks and have continued to expand under Obama.
Government surveillance has a sinister resonance in Europe and news about U.S. spying may have economic ramifications, Fran Burwell, a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, said in a phone interview. It may complicate talks about a trans-Atlantic trade pact and has exacerbated long-standing tensions between the United States and the European Union over privacy, she said.
A European Parliament committee last week backed draft rules intended to toughen a 1995 privacy-protection law and impose penalties on domestic and foreign companies that violate it. The proposal would require companies such as Google to let users fully erase their personal data and subject violators to fines of as much as the greater of $138 million or 5 percent of annual sales for violations.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a statement on Tuesday saying reports that the United States collected more than 70 million "recordings of French citizens' telephone data" were false.
"While we are not going to discuss the details of our activities, we have repeatedly made it clear that the United States gathers intelligence of the type gathered by all nations," Clapper said.
Clapper didn't acknowledge that the scope of U.S. data and intelligence gathering far surpasses that of its allies and enemies.
Spying a common practice
Intelligence gathering has occurred throughout history. The ancient Hebrews used spies to capture the city of Jericho, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu extolled using subterfuge, while the Aztecs sent people in local dress to infiltrate the enemy before battle. In 1970s Moscow, the Soviet Union bugged 16 of the U.S. Embassy's IBM Selectric typewriters that were tracked by engineers at listening posts nearby.
"I work on assumption that 6+ countries tap my phone," Tom Fletcher, Britain's ambassador to Lebanon, said in a Twitter posting Thursday. "Increasingly rare that diplomats say anything sensitive on calls."
Denis MacShane, who was Britain's Europe minister in former Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government, said he was warned to expect that his mobile phone calls would be listened to while he was in France.
"In Paris, it was generally assumed that they wanted to know everything we were saying and thinking," MacShane said in a telephone interview. "I sometimes made a point of saying things on the phone that I wanted my opposite number to hear, U.K. government positions and so on."
Communications-scrambling equipment in cars used by British senior ministers was so powerful, Shane said, that women were warned not to travel in them if they were pregnant.
Even so, for Europe and particularly Germany, the prospect of government surveillance has dark echoes. The Nazis deployed spies and, after World War II, the East German Stasi, or secret police, created massive networks that had friends, families and spouses watch and inform on each other.
"This has very bad resonance," Burwell said. "When Angela Merkel speaks about this, she grew up with the Stasi."
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle Thursday summoned U.S. ambassador John Emerson to further explain the reports. On Oct. 21, France called in the U.S. ambassador there.
While the United States has close ties to both countries, they are not part of the so-called "Five Eyes" agreement of 1946 under which the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share most of their electronic intelligence.
Der Spiegel magazine reported that U.S. intelligence may have been monitoring Merkel's private mobile phone for years. German authorities investigated, and gathered enough information to confront the United States with the findings suggesting that Merkel's phone had been monitored, Spiegel said in an emailed statement.
Easy to tap into phones
Mobile phones are "pretty easy to exploit," said John Pirc, research vice president at NSS Labs Inc., a cybersecurity research and analysis firm based in Austin, Texas. Hacking into a smartphone is similar to breaking into a laptop or PC.
The attacker must entice the user to visit a website or click on a hyperlink containing software that, once downloaded onto the phone, gives the hacker control of the device. A common way to trick the user into opening the file is for the hacker to masquerade as someone the owner knows and trusts.
Once in the phone, the hacker can listen to conversations or control the device's functions, such as its camera or email.
"You can have the best security in the world, but once I am on your phone, I own it," said Pirc, who has conducted cybersecurity research for the CIA. "It's quite alarming how easy it is to do this."
Another intelligence official, who asked for anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter, said allies spy on each other all the time. Pointing to France's angry reaction to this week's reports, he said he wished he knew the French word for chutzpah -- a Yiddish word that means nerve or audacity. He said France is among the most active countries when it comes to spying on allies and non-allies alike.
Given the elevated threat of terrorist attacks in Europe this spring, the United States was probably seeking "information about terrorism and or the activities in Europe of countries from other regions that are hostile to us," McLaughlin said.
European nations were probably doing the same thing, he said.
Leaks based on data from Snowden appear "to be timed to interfere with diplomatic activity" and "appear to be directed at driving wedges between us and our allies," McLaughlin said. "There's a pattern here that makes you suspicious that whoever is controlling this is trying to achieve that end."
News about surveillance of French calls, for example, surfaced earlier this week as Secretary of State John Kerry visited Paris.