France denounces U.S. spying exposed by WikiLeaks

French President Francois Hollande held a crisis meeting of the country's Defense Council on Wednesday after newspapers published WikiLeaks documents showing that the United States eavesdropped on him and two predecessors.

After the meeting, the council issued a statement lambasting U.S. spying as “unacceptable” and declaring that France had demanded two years ago that the National Security Agency stop snooping on its leaders.

Hollande spoke to President Obama on Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers across the political spectrum insisted the French president demand a formal apology. After the telephone conversation, the Elysee Palace issued a statement saying Obama had “reiterated a firm pledge” made two years ago, after allegations of U.S. spying on French officials first emerged, that the practice had been halted.

A White House statement said Obama had reiterated “that we are not targeting and will not target the communications of the French president.” The statement made no admission of prior spying, nor ruled out intelligence-gathering efforts on the French more broadly.

“We are committed to our productive and indispensable intelligence relationship with France, which allows us to make progress against shared threats, including international terrorism and proliferation, among others,” the White House said.

The president feted Hollande during a 2014 state visit to Washington, and the two leaders emphasized their deepening ties.

The latest WikiLeaks revelations, first published in the daily newspaper Liberation and the investigative news website Mediapart, allege that the NSA eavesdropped on telephone conversations of former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy as well as Hollande.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said he was confident the documents were authentic, the Associated Press reported.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius summoned the American ambassador to Paris, Jane Hartley, to his office Wednesday evening to demand an explanation over the spying claims, which sparked indignation and anger in France.

“These are unacceptable facts that have already been the subject of clarification between the U.S. and France, notably at the end of 2013 when the first revelations were made and during a state visit by the president of the republic to the United States in February 2014,” read the Defense Council statement.

“Promises were made by the American authorities. They must remember and strictly respect them. France, which has reinforced its control and protection measures, will not tolerate any scheming that threatens its security and the protection of its interests,” it read.

In 2013, documents released by NSA leaker Edward Snowden showed that the United States had intercepted about 70 million pieces of data on French telecommunications. Snowden also revealed that the U.S. had been monitoring the cellphone communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

After the Merkel disclosures, Obama ordered a review of NSA spying on allies. Afterward, U.S. officials said Obama had ordered a halt to surveillance of the leaders of allied countries and their aides.

The WikiLeaks website listed the contents of what it called “Espionnage Elysee” (Elysee Spying), a collection of top secret intelligence reports and technical data from five major intercepts of communications involving “high level officials from successive French governments over the last 10 years,” including the three presidents.

Transcripts of eavesdropping on telephone conversations and emails covered subjects including a top United Nations appointment, the Middle East peace process and the handling of the Greek debt crisis as well as the leadership and future of the European Union.

One document reportedly shows phone numbers listed by the NSA as top French official “intercept targets,” including that of the president's cellphone, with some digits crossed out. Other senior officials, including the Elysee secretary general, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, the presidential advisor for Africa and the secretary of state for trade, also had their conversations recorded, according to the leaked documents.

A purported intelligence report from March 2010 follows an intercepted communication from Sarkozy expressing his frustration with U.S. spying on France.

In another, from 2008, Sarkozy reportedly talks about the global economic crisis. “The president blamed many of the current economic problems on mistakes made by the U.S. government, but believes that Washington is now heeding some of his advice,” the document says.

In the National Assembly on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls repeated that the United States’ “systematic and continued spying on the leaders of foreign countries” was “not legitimate, not acceptable and not normal.”

“This information is extremely serious,” Valls told lawmakers. “It's not legitimate in the name of national interests to carry out eavesdropping — and, no, France does not spy on its European partners or its allies.

“France will not tolerate any scheming that threatens its security and fundamental interest,” Valls added. He said the U.S. now had to make an effort to “repair the damage” caused by the revelations.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the American government would not comment on the specifics of the leak.

“As a general matter, we do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose. This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” he said.

French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said a senior French intelligence official was being sent to the United States for talks with his counterparts.

The WikiLeaks revelations came just hours before members of Parliament were expected to approve a bill giving the French intelligence services sweeping new powers to snoop on their own people. Critics have said the law would be a threat to individual liberties, but the government argues the measures are necessary after the January attacks in Paris by Islamist extremists.

Willsher is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.

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UPDATES

3:24 p.m.: This article was updated throughout.

9:59 a.m.: This article has been updated with statements regarding a phone conversation between Presidents Obama and Hollande.

June 24, 7:33 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, French council meeting, quotes, statements, background.

This article was originally posted at 7:39 p.m. Tuesday.

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