Does the US spy on all its friends? Now, it's France's turn to complain

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. It's a familiar story by now -- foreign government demands American explanation. This after new spying revelations from NSA leaker, Edward Snowden. Make that two angry foreign governments today, France and Mexico. In just a moment we'll here from Mexico. First though, we turn to France where the newspaper Le Monde writes the National Security Agency swept up some 70 million French phone records in a 30-day period. Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief for The Daily Beast, and, Christopher, tell us what the US was exactly looking for in those 70+ million communications.

Christopher Dickey: You know, the United States is scooping up as many communications as it can around the world, including those of its allies like France, and a lot of communications that in fact involve American citizens. As we know, that's been the scandal of the last several months. What they do is vacuum everything up and then filter a lot out, just trying to keep the particular communications that have certain keywords in them. We don't know exactly what those keywords are, but you can guess, al Qaeda or sometimes things that are more banal, like a special wedding, which was code that al Qaeda use to use for instance, the 9/11 attacks.

Werman: So the NSA drags its net through the shoals of information. Did they find anything?

Dickey: You know, that's what we don't know from all these Snowden revelations. The impression is that they find absolutely nothing and then they wave the flag and say oh, well we've stopped this or that terrorist attack, but we can't really tell you any of the details. You know, if they want to find things, they have to do it this way because almost all major communications now are carried over fiber optic cables and it's not the kind of thing where you can just sort of put you know, alligator clips on a wire. You have to suck it all in and then filter most of it out. And the resulting process is a very messy one and one that invades everybody's privacy, but they frankly don't know any other way to do it.

Werman: I mean once it's revealed that the NSA does that to a country, it's not what's found necessarily that upsets people, it's just the perception that they did it, so how are the French feeling today?

Dickey: Well, you know, there is a large reserve of anti-Americanism here that gets tapped into, as it were, by this kind of revelation. But the French are also sort of cynical about the whole business of intelligence gathering. You know, they have a very significan spy service themselves and in fact, Le Monde which broke this story about the latest revelations concerning the NSA and France, also broke a story several months ago saying that the French Intelligence Services were doing exactly the same thing to the French people. So I think there's a certain level of cynicism here, but of course, there's always a knee jerk anti-American reaction.

Werman: Right, I was gonna say, I mean it's one thing to have your own government spying on you, but this is not their government, it's another government, notably one with which the French have this notorious love-hate relationship.

Dickey: Well, that's right and you can say you know, the French and the Americans are the best of enemies or the worst of friends. They're constantly spying on each other in fact. I mean my friends in the intelligence services told me years ago that there are several friendly countries that they worry about spying on the United States. One of them is Israel, another is France.

Werman: I mean one other thing about this episode and this revelation is how much does it hit the French where it hurts because aren't the French really concerned about their own government spying on them, regardless of recent revelations?

Dickey: Well, the French of course are concerned about the government's spying on them, but they also sort of cynically believe it does. But what the French are worrying about traditionally is people in their own family finding out what they're doing. It's very funny that one of the characteristics of French telephone bills for years, dating back to the time when there were landlines for everybody, was that they didn't tell you exactly who had been called on that telephone. They might tell you a few digits, but it was like a credit card number, only partially revealed because among other things, the spouses didn't want their opposite numbers to know who they were calling, less they be having an affair and it be discovered. So it sounds terribly French and is. My own phone bill now has virtually no information about any specific calls.

Werman: Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief for The Daily Beast, thanks a lot.

Dickey: Thank you, Marco, always a pleasure.