Adding gasoline to an already blazing diplomatic state of affairs, a report in the Spanish El Mundo newspaper revealed Monday that the National Security Agency monitored over 60 million phone calls in Spain between December and January of this year. The news comes a day after President Barack Obama was accused of tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone and a week after similar allegations of wide-scale surveillance in France. Talk about deja-vu.
The report published in El Mundo Monday cites (of course) another document given by ex-government contractor Edward Snowden, entitled "Spain – last 30 days." The NSA graphic reportedly shows that metadata was gathered on millions of phone calls across the European country, monitoring as many as 3.5 million in a day. A total of 60.5 million phone calls were intercepted between December 10, 2012 and January 8, 2013, as were emails and other forms of social media. The surveillance, according to Gustavo Boye, editor of the satirical magazine Mongolia, would be illegal under article 97 of the country's penal code.
In response to the revelations, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has already summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation (although how that explanation will differ from those already given to France, Germany and Brazil is hard to imagine). Awkwardly for Spain, though, it was only last week that the country rejected a move put forward by Germany to sign a "no-spy deal" among the EU's 28 member states.
"We'll see once we have more information if we decide to join with what France and Germany have done," Rajoy said Friday.
The reports come only a day after the German tabloid Bild alleged that Obama was personally told about the operation to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone — and okayed it — forcing the NSA to make a public statement denying the accusations. According to the statement, the agency's director "did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true."
But members of Congress seemed skeptical about the denial. The chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee, Republican Darrell Issa, said Sunday that "the NSA works for the president. Through his national security advisers he knew or should have known."
The comment reflects a growing move on the part of Congress to distance itself from the national security agency. Only two days ago, Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL 9th District) criticized the agency for its lack of transparency, even towards members of Congress, saying: "I’ve learned far more about government spying on me and my fellow citizens from reading media reports than I have from “intelligence” briefings…In fact, one long-serving conservative Republican told me that he doesn’t attend such briefings anymore, because, “they always lie.”
The NSA has, however, pointed the finger at the press, claiming, as ever, that publicizing the agency's surveillance techniques are putting the country in danger. “I think it’s wrong that that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000 — whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these — you know it just doesn’t make sense,” NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said two days ago. “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it."
But as Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who worked closely with Snowden and broke many of his stories), pointed out, there are, uh, issues with Alexander's comment.
"I'd love to know what ways, specifically, General Alexander has in mind for empowering the US government to "come up with a way of stopping" the journalism on this story," Greenwald said. "Whatever ways those might be, they are deeply hostile to the US constitution – obviously. What kind of person wants the government to forcibly shut down reporting by the press?"
Legislation to reform the National Security Agency is being put forward in both houses of Congress this week — but its focus will be almost entirely on the monitory of American citizens, rather than the administration's activities overseas.
In the meantime, both the White House and the agency will be under intense pressure to explain away the NSA's potentially illegal (and definitely offensive) invasions of privacy, as the European Union parliamentary delegation prepares for a series of meetings in Washington in the next few days.