Thibault Camus, Associated Press
BRUSSELS — U.S. allies knew that the Americans were spying on them, but they had no idea how much.
As details of National Security Agency spying programs have become public through former contractor Edward Snowden, citizens, activists and politicians in countries from Latin America to Europe have lined up to express shock and outrage at the scope of what Washington may know about them.
But politicians are also using the threat to their citizens' privacy to drum up their numbers at the polls — or to distract attention from their own domestic problems. Some have even downplayed the matter to keep good relations with Washington.
After a Paris newspaper reported the NSA had swept up 70.3 million French telephone records in a 30-day period, the French government called the U.S. ambassador in for an explanation and put the issue of personal data protection on the agenda of the European Union summit that opens Thursday.
But the official French position —that friendly nations should not spy on each another — can't be taken literally, a former French foreign minister says.
"The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us," Bernard Kouchner said Tuesday in a radio interview. "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous. And it's a bit of a game to discover the eavesdropping among intelligence services, even though the services — especially the Americans and the French — work together quite efficiently."
The French government, which until this week had been largely silent in the face of widespread U.S. snooping on its territory, may have had other reasons to speak out. The furor over the NSA managed to draw media attention away from France's controversial expulsion of a Roma family at a time when French President Francois Hollande's popularity is at a historic low. Just 23 percent of French approve of the job he is doing, according to a poll released last weekend.
In Germany, opposition politicians, the media and privacy activists have been vocal in their outrage over reported widescale U.S. eavesdropping — but not Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has worked hard to contain the damage to U.S.-German relations and refrained from saying anything bad about the Americans.
The German leader has expressed surprise at the scope of U.S. data collection efforts but also said her country was "dependent" on cooperation with the American spy agencies. It was thanks to "tips from American sources," she said, that security services were able to foil an Islamic terror plot in 2007 that targeted U.S. soldiers and citizens in Germany with an explosive equivalent to 900 pounds of TNT.
Still, to fend off criticism by the opposition and the media, Merkel raised the electronic eavesdropping issue when President Barack Obama visited Germany in June, demanded answers from the U.S. government, and backed calls for greater data protection at a European level.
Few countries have responded as angrily to U.S. spying than Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff took the extremely rare diplomatic step of canceling a visit to Washington where she had been scheduled to receive a full state dinner this week.
Analysts say the anger is genuine, though also politically profitable for Rousseff, who faces an increasingly competitive re-election campaign next year. Her strong stance against the United States can only help her standing with the more left-wing elements of her ruling Workers Party.
David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, said since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., it was "well known by Brazilian governments" that the Americans had stepped up spying efforts.
"But what the government did not know was that Dilma's office had been hacked as well, and this is what caused the outrage," Fleischer said.
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