WASHINGTON -- Leaked U.S. documents appearing to show that the National Security Agency collected data on tens of millions of European phone records, an issue that has sparked outrage among U.S. allies, actually represented data handed over to the NSA by European intelligence services as part of joint operations, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The claim refutes reports in leading French and Spanish newspapers suggesting that the NSA had vacuumed up French and Spanish telephone records without the knowledge of those governments. U.S. officials now say that the NSA didn’t collect the data -- the intelligence services of those countries did.
Exactly how the telephone records were used is unclear, but U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified programs portrayed the operation as related to counter-terrorism efforts and force protection in Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence officials had disputed the newspaper stories, but had avoided citing the complicity of European spy agencies until now because of diplomatic sensitivities about exposing the role of foreign intelligence partners.
The disclosure is likely to spark domestic anger against the governments in those countries, and could threaten future cooperation with the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Now, however, the NSA is under separate pressure related to its spying on friendly European leaders.
The French newspaper Le Monde said the leaked documents showed that the NSA collected more than 70 million French phone records between early December 2012 and early January 2013. Spain’s El Mundo newspaper said 60.5 million phone calls in that country had been intercepted during the same time period.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said the French report contained “inaccurate and misleading information regarding U.S. foreign intelligence activities.”
He said the allegation that the NSA collected more than 70 million “recordings of French citizens’ telephone data” was false, but he would not elaborate.
One U.S. official said the French phone records collected were from outside of France. He said the Spanish situation appeared similar, although officials were not yet certain.
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington declined comment.