The National Security Agency’s spy programs have been defended by U.S. government officials in recent weeks as crucial in the fight against terrorism. But the scope of the agency’s surveillance efforts extend far beyond a mission to track down and identify potential al-Qaida plotters, new revelations from a trove of leaked secret documents show.
On Sunday, Germany’s Der Spiegel revealed how the NSA has infiltrated the computer networks of United Nations headquarters in New York and European Union offices in New York and Washington, D.C. The agency reportedly cracked the U.N.’s internal encryption system used for video conferencing, hacked into a virtual private network used by EU diplomats to communicate, and stationed a team of spies disguised as diplomats at the U.N. According to Der Spiegel’s report, the NSA is operating secret eavesdropping posts in 80 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, internally referred to as the "Special Collection Service" and jointly operated with the CIA.
The details build on a report by the Guardian back in June that first disclosed how the NSA was targeting diplomatic missions as part of its sweeping surveillance programs. The U.S. government has tried to downplay its spying on allies, portraying the shadowy snooping efforts as routine. However, the aggressive scope of the NSA’s surveillance targeting allied nations’ diplomats—an act that is considered a violation of international law—has perturbed government officials in Europe. French President Francois Hollande previously demanded that the spying stop “immediately,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the allegations, if true, would be “unacceptable Cold War–style behavior.”
NSA surveillance has already become a key political issue in Germany as elections approach in September. Merkel’s main rival, Peer Steinbrück, is now pledging that if elected he will suspend EU–U.S. trade talks until the U.S. government comes clean about whether it bugged German government offices and other European institutions. “We don't know if the Americans may be sitting under our desks with some technical devices,” Steinbrück said in an interview aired on German TV on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament is launching an investigation into surveillance following the revelations about NSA spy programs. The investigation will focus on the bugging of EU premises and other spying allegations, with findings published in a report before the end of the year. In July, an effort to set up working groups to discuss spying on diplomats was vetoed by Britain and Sweden. U.K. spy agency GCHQ has also been implicated in the surveillance scandal, with documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showing that foreign politicians and officials had their computers monitored and their phone calls intercepted by the British government at a series of meetings in London in 2009.