The European Union has demanded that the United States explain a report in a German magazine that Washington is spying on the group, using unusually strong language to confront its closest trading partner over its alleged surveillance activities.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the EU contacted US authorities in Washington and Brussels about a report in Der Spiegel magazine that the US secret service had tapped EU offices in Washington, Brussels and at the United Nations.
“We have immediately been in contact with the US authorities in Washington DC and in Brussels and have confronted them with the press reports,” the spokeswoman said. “They have told us they are checking on the accuracy of the information released yesterday and will come back to us.”
France also asked for an explanation. “These acts, if confirmed, would be completely unacceptable,” foreign minister Laurent Fabius said.
Der Spiegel reported on its website yesterday that the National Security Agency (NSA) bugged EU offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, the latest revelation of alleged US spying that has prompted outrage from EU politicians.
The magazine followed up today with a report that the US secret service taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month, much more than any other European peer and similar to the data tapped in China or Iraq. It also uses data from internet hubs in south and west Germany that organise data traffic to Syria and Mali.
The revelations of alleged US surveillance programmes based on documents taken by fugitive former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have raised a political furore in the United States and abroad over the balance between privacy rights and national security.
Exposing the latest details in a string of reputed spying programmes, Der Spiegel quoted from an internal NSA document which it said its reporters had seen.
The document Spiegel cited showed that the United States categorised Germany as a “third-class” partner and that surveillance there was stronger than in any other EU country, similar in extent to China, Iraq or Saudi-Arabia.
“We can attack the signals of most foreign third-class partners, and we do it too,” Der Spiegel quoted a passage in the NSA document as saying.
It said the document showed that the NSA monitored phone calls, text messages, emails and internet chat contributions and has saved the metadata - that is, the connections, not the content - at its headquarters.
On an average day, the NSA monitored about 20 million German phone connections and 10 million internet data sets, rising to 60 million phone connections on busy days, the report said.
While it had been known from disclosures by Snowden that the United States tapped data in Germany, the extent was previously unclear.
News of the US cyber-espionage programme Prism and the British equivalent Tempora have outraged Germans, who are highly sensitive to government monitoring having lived through the Stasi secret police in the former communist East Germany and with lingering memories of the Gestapo of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
In France, Der Spiegel reported, the United States taps about 2 million connection data a day. Only Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand were explicitly exempted from spy attacks.
Mr Snowden, a US citizen, fled the United States to Hong Kong in May, a few weeks before the publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of details he provided about secret US government surveillance of internet and phone traffic.
He has been holed up in a Moscow airport transit area for a week after US authorities revoked his passport. The leftist government of Ecuador is reviewing his request for asylum.