It’s enough to make you wonder whether President Barack Obama and President François Hollande of France were actually talking to each other, and on the same telephone call.
The White House and Elysée Palace offered radically different accounts of a Monday conversation prompted by news reports that the NSA scooped up some 70.3 million French telephone calls and emails over a month — fruit of the latest leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Here are some of the more notable chasms:
- “Friends and allies”?
Obama’s version: “The United States and France are allies and friends, and share a close working relationship on a wide range of issues, including security and intelligence.”
Hollande’s version (warning: French): “The Head of State shared his deep disapproval regarding these practices, which are unacceptable between allies and friends, because they violate the privacy of French citizens.”
- I have a bone to pick with you:
Hollande’s version: “He requested a full accounting (of the reported spying) as well as all of the information that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden might have in his possession.”
Obama’s version: “The President and President Hollande discussed recent disclosures in the press — some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed.”
- Rules for the spy game?
Hollande’s version: “They underlined that intelligence-gathering operations must be organized, notably on a bilateral basis, in such a way as to promote the only worthwhile fight, which is the fight against terrorism.”
Obama’s version: “The President made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”
- Working together going forward?
Hollande’s version: “The two presidents agreed that French and American intelligence agencies will work together towards that common goal.”
Obama’s version: “The two Presidents agreed that we should continue to discuss these issues in diplomatic channels moving forward.”
It’s not unusual for world leaders to stress different aspects of a telephone conversation, but even by those standards the conversation prompted by Snowden’s latest leaks is remarkable.
Shocked, shocked France is hardly a stranger to spying — experts say Paris developed its sizeable nuclear arsenal by stealing U.S. atomic secrets. And its networks across Africa and the Middle East share valuable information with their American counterparts, U.S. officials say.
Le Monde, which published the latest allegations of U.S. spying, reported earlier this year that France’s own intelligence services intercepted and stored telephone and online communications. Hollande’s government denies the charge.
But diplomats complain that Obama has done next to nothing to help elected officials in allied countries tamp down anger among their voters at American spying. They say the U.S. president’s total lack of even feigned contrition in effect forces other leaders to take a tougher public line.
The White House line has been unapologetic.
“We have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday when asked about Franco-U.S. tensions over the disclosures. (The word “type” is important, since what most foreign governments have angrily denounced is the unprecedented and unparalleled scope of U.S. spying — yes, all countries want to intercept telephone calls, this argument goes, but only the United States vacuums up tens of millions of communications of foreign citizens).
“We’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” Carney added.
The spokesman also offered what has become a recurring defense of America’s sweeping intelligence programs: When confronted with allegations of abuse, restate that the goal of the programs is legitimate.
“I would remind you that the National Security Agency is a foreign intelligence agency,” Carney said. “It is focused on discovering and developing information about valid foreign intelligence targets. Its activities are directed against these valid foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."