By Lesley Wroughton
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (Reuters) – Nearly all national governments, not just the United States, use “lots of activities” to safeguard their interests and security, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, responding for the first time to allegations that Washington spied on the European Union and other allies.
The EU has strongly demanded that the United States explain a report in a German magazine that Washington is spying on the group, saying that, if true, the alleged surveillance was “shocking”.
The Guardian newspaper said in an article late on Sunday that the United States had also targeted non-European allies including Japan, South Korea and India for spying – an awkward development for Kerry as he arrived for an Asian security conference in Brunei on Monday.
Kerry confirmed that EU High Representative Catherine Ashton had raised the issue with him in a meeting with him in Brunei but gave no further details of their exchange. He said he had yet to see details of the newspaper allegations.
“I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations,” Kerry told a news conference.
Some EU policymakers said talks for a free trade agreement between Washington and the EU should be put on ice until further clarification from the United States.
Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament, told French radio the United States had crossed a line.
“I was always sure that dictatorships, some authoritarian systems, tried to listen … but that measures like that are now practiced by an ally, by a friend, that is shocking, in the case that it is true,” Schulz said in an interview with France 2.
Officials in Japan and South Korea said they were aware of the newspaper reports and had asked Washington to clarify them.
“I’m aware of the article, but we still haven’t confirmed the contents of the story. Obviously we’re interested in this matter and we’ll seek an appropriate confirmation on this,” said Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a regular news conference.
“We saw the report and will do a fact-check,” a South Korean government official said. The official declined to comment further, saying it was a media report without any clear evidence.
Officials in New Delhi did not have any immediate comment but India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who is also in Brunei, told the ANI television service: : “These are all areas of great strategic importance that we have to cooperate and collaborate in, in counter-terrorism measures.
“I think we continue to remain in touch and cooperate and (if) there is any concern we would convey it or they would convey it to us,” he added.
Der Spiegel reported on Saturday that the National Security Agency (NSA) bugged EU offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, the latest revelation of alleged U.S. spying that has prompted outrage from EU politicians.
The magazine followed up on Sunday with a report that the U.S. agency taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month, much more than any other European peer and similar to the data tapped in China or Iraq.
“If the media reports are correct, this brings to memory actions among enemies during the Cold War. It goes beyond any imagination that our friends in the United States view the Europeans as enemies,” German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said.
“If it is true that EU representations in Brussels and Washington were indeed tapped by the American Secret Service, it can hardly be explained with the argument of fighting terrorism,” she said in a statement.
Revelations about the U.S. surveillance program, which was made public by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have raised a furor in the United States and abroad over the balance between privacy rights and national security.
Kerry said the Obama administration believes that China could have aided the United States in its efforts to arrest Snowden while he was in Hong Kong. Snowden is currently holed up at an international airport in Russia, from where he has applied for asylum in Ecuador.
“It is safe to say that the Obama administration believes that our friends in China could in fact have made a difference here, but we have a lot of issues that we are dealing with right now,” Kerry said.
He said he and the Chinese foreign minister had discussed Snowden during their one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of the summit.
(Writing by Stuart Grudgings; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)