Spain protests, but not too much, over NSA spying

The revelations that the National Security Agency collected some 60 million Spanish communications in a month are just the latest involving America's European allies.

Juan Medina/Reuters
A man holds a banner outside the foreign ministry during a meeting of US ambassador in Spain, James Costos, with Spain's European Secretary of State in Madrid, October 28, 2013. The banner reads 'The US spies and steals from us.'

Spain’s government demanded answers on Monday concerning new information that the US National Security Agency had been intercepting and monitoring millions of phone calls in Spain.

But experts say that Madrid's reaction to the latest revelation of American spying on European allies is notably muted, particularly in comparison to France and Germany.

A report in the newspaper El Mundo, which said the US agency had collected 60 million communications in a month-long period ending early January, prompted the government to summon the US ambassador to lodge a diplomatic protest. The report was co-authored by Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist who has been a conduit for materials collected by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  

Similar recent revelations have stoked anger with longstanding US allies in Europe. On Sunday, German media aired new details of the depth of the NSA's spying in Germany, reporting that US President Barack Obama has been briefed three years ago on the NSA’s surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That report, in Bild am Sontag, was followed by an article in Der Spiegel that said Merkel was first put under surveillance by the NSA in 2002.

In Madrid, Spain’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had asked the US to provide “all the necessary information” on any alleged spying activities “that if confirmed, are improper and unacceptable among partners and friendly countries.”

US Ambassador James Costos, meanwhile, was summoned to meet with Spain’s undersecretary for European affairs, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, on Monday, while Foreign Minister José Manuel García Margallo was out of the country.

But despite the official protestations, José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior policy fellow in the European Council on Foreign Relations, says that the tenor of the Spanish government’s reaction has been relatively muted, particularly compared to that of Germany.

“Unlike what’s happening elsewhere, where public opinion and media have mounted pressure, it doesn’t appear that the government is concerned or that people are leaning toward anti-Americanism,” Mr. Torreblanca says.

Spanish privacy laws were as strict as its European counterparts, but most Spaniards have long accepted state prying in exchange for security, he points out.

“Naturally, without making it personal, it’s hard to get excited over this,” Torreblanca says. “Spaniards don’t share the sense that their national security has been compromised.”

Spain’s intelligence services have a long history of collaboration with the US, working with US agencies, for example, monitoring the growth of Al Qaeda-linked terror groups in the West African region known as the Maghreb. US forces base part of their counterterrorism and eavesdropping hardware for North Africa in Spain.

Spanish citizens have also been preoccupied lately with domestic political scandals, the economy and domestic unemployment which is one of the highest in Europe.

After his meeting with Spanish officials, Ambassador Costos said in a statement that US surveillance programs “have played a critical role in protecting citizens of the United States. They have also played an instrumental role in our coordination with our allies and in protecting their interests as well.”

“We will continue to confer with our allies, such as Spain, through our regular diplomatic channels to address the concerns that they have raised. Ultimately, the United States needs to balance the important role that these programs play in protecting our national security and protecting the security of our allies with legitimate privacy concerns,” the ambassador’s statement said.

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