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WikiLeaks Docs Show NSA Penetrated Highest Levels of French Government

The revelations are likely to cause a political scandal in France.

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How’s this for irony? In 2010, the National Security Agency intercepted communications between two senior French officials complaining about the United States’ unwillingness to stop spying on France.

That tidbit is among the latest revelations provided by WikiLeaks, which on Tuesday published a small selection of documents about American snooping on top-level French officials. The bombshell revelation: That the NSA spied on the communications of three successive French presidents, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande. More broadly, the NSA documents indicate that the spy agency has figured out ways to intercept communications at the very highest levels of the French government.

Just as NSA eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone caused a scandal in Germany, the report that U.S. spies snooped on the communications of French leaders are sure to have intense repercussions from Paris to Provence. The White House declined to comment on the allegations Tuesday. “As a general matter, we do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike.”

As with the NSA targeting of Merkel’s cell phone, the WikiLeaks report alleging a similar operation against France is fairly vague. It is based on a list of “selectors,” detailing phone numbers to be targeted for electronic surveillance. The list of digits includes one purporting to be the cell phone belonging to the French president. It is unclear how WikiLeaks or their partners on the story — the French paper Libération and the online outlet Mediapart — concluded that the telephonic surveillance of the national leaders extended across three administrations. The list of selectors includes only one telephone number, and the conclusion based on the report would seem to imply that three successive French presidents used the same cell phone number. The list of targets includes numbers allegedly belonging to several senior advisors to the government.

But in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations, perhaps it is naive to assume that the NSA isn’t targeting the communications of the leaders of major world powers. With that in mind, it should also be noted that WikiLeaks does not specify the source of the material or whether the documents in question were provided by Snowden.

The documents published by WikiLeaks also include five intelligence summaries based on communications between high-level French officials. For French officials, these summaries are sure to provide a wake-up call about the ability of U.S. spies to intercept their communications.

One document reveals that the NSA obtained information that Hollande in June of 2012 directed his then-prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, to perform an end run around Merkel by setting up meetings with Germany’s Social Democrats, the opposition party. According to the NSA’s analysis, this maneuver came amid concern in Paris that Merkel was overly focused on imposing austerity measures on Greece’s struggling economy.

In 2010, the NSA intercepted communications between then-French ambassador, Pierre Vimont, in Washington and a diplomatic advisor in Paris, Jean-David Levitte, previewing issues that Sarkozy planned to raise in a meeting with President Barack Obama. “Vimont conveyed that the French president will express his frustration that Washington has backed away from its proposed bilateral intelligence cooperation agreement, and Sarkozy intends to continue to push for closure,” the NSA summary reads. “As Vimont and Levitte understand it, the main sticking point is the U.S. desire to continue spying on France.”

In 2006, the spy agency intercepted a communication between Chirac and his foreign minister in which the French president instructs his lieutenant on how to go about lobbying for Terje Roed-Larsen to be appointed as deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. In a snide comment, the NSA notes, “Chirac’s detailed orders may be in response to the foreign minister’s propensity, amply demonstrated in the past and the impetus behind a number of presidential reprimands, for making ill-timed or inaccurate remarks.”

The revelations go to show just how deeply the NSA has penetrated the upper ranks of the French government.

Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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