DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania - Facing a European uproar over more U.S. eavesdropping claims, President Barack Obama argued Monday that it's no surprise that governments spy on each other but said the United States will provide allies with information about new reports that the National Security Agency bugged European Union offices in Washington, New York and Brussels.
The latest revelations were attributed in part to information supplied by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Obama on Monday also said the U.S. has held "high-level" discussions with Russians to get Snowden out of a Moscow airport and back to the United States to face criminal charges.
Obama, in a news conference with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, pushed back against objections from key allies over a report in the German news weekly Der Spiegel that the United States installed covert listening devices in EU offices. He suggested such activity by governments is not unusual.
"We should stipulate that every intelligence service - not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there's an intelligence service - here's one thing that they're going to be doing: they're going to be trying to understand the world better and what's going on in world capitals around the world," he said. "If that weren't the case, then there'd be no use for an intelligence service.
"And I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That's how intelligence services operate," Obama added.
European officials from Germany, Italy, France, Luxembourg and the EU government itself say the revelations could damage negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty between the EU and the United States. Agreeing to start those talks was one of the achievements reached at meetings last month in Northern Ireland between Obama and the European members of the Group of Eight industrialized economies.
Obama said the NSA will evaluate the claims in the German publication and will then inform allies about the allegations.
At the same time, he tried to reassure allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron that he relies on personal relationships, not spying, to determine what other leaders have on their minds.
"I'm the end user of this kind of intelligence," he said. "And if I want to know what Chancellor Merkel is thinking, I will call Chancellor Merkel. If I want to know President Hollande is thinking on a particular issue, I'll call President Hollande. And if I want to know what, you know, David Cameron's thinking, I call David Cameron. Ultimately, you know, we work so closely together that there's almost no information that's not shared between our various countries."
Obama's remarks came shortly after Hollande demanded on Monday that the United States immediately stop any eavesdropping on European Union diplomats.
Obama also said law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Russia were working to find a way to get Snowden back to the United States, where he is charged with violating U.S. espionage laws. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Russia. Moreover, Russia has claimed Snowden is not technically on their soil because, while he is in the transit terminal of the Moscow airport, he has not passed through immigration. The U.S. has revoked his passport.
"We are hopeful that the Russian government makes decisions based on the normal procedures regarding international travel and the normal interactions that law enforcement has," Obama said.
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