Spanish intelligence routinely turns over millions of private messages to NSA

Telephone metadata and other communications are given to US spy experts for deciphering Spanish law prohibits massive and indiscriminate trawling of networks

Spain’s National Intelligence Center (CNI) routinely turns over to the US National Security Agency (NSA) large quantities of personal information on citizens, including time and locations of telephone calls and the parties who are communicating with each other, different sources with knowledge of this practice have told EL PAÍS.

The CNI’s cooperation with the NSA in the transfer of telephone metadata is no different to what intelligence agencies in other European nations do, the sources added.

These revelations confirm what NSA director Gen Keith Alexander told a group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. During a hearing before a congressional intelligence panel to discuss media allegations that the United States was conducting espionage activities in Spain, France and Germany, Alexander denied that his agency was spying on ordinary European citizens but said that it was the European intelligence agencies (CNI and France’s DGSE) who shared the phone metadata with the NSA.

The allegations against the NSA surfaced in the Spanish, French and German press based on documents leaked by former US intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden.

The Europeans have capabilities to intercept, but not to process this information"

Alexander told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that journalists had misinterpreted leaked data about the alleged spying operations.

“They cite as evidence screenshots of the results of a web tool used for data management purposes, but both they and the person who stole the classified data did not understand what they were looking at,” he said.

Luis de la Corte, who is the director of intelligence and strategic studies at Madrid’s Autónoma University, said that generally this type of sharing with the United States occurs in places where US intelligence services have little presence, including Spain.

"This also means geographical areas, and large Spanish companies that, for obvious reasons, are more likely to cooperate with the intelligence services of their own country than with foreigners," says the professor. De la Corte made no reference to any individual firm, but other sources claim that the CNI has close relations with Spanish telecoms, similar to links the NSA has with Google and Facebook.

No judge can authorize a tap on the Columbus III transatlantic underwater communications cable

Jean-Charles Brisard, a terrorism expert who was hired by victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States to carry out their own investigation, said that European intelligence services deliver large chunks of metadata to the powerful NSA, which monitors all global communications.

“Cooperation between the intelligence services is similar to SWIFT,” said Brisard in reference to the international financial transaction service based in Brussels. “Information concerning these operations is passed on in massive quantities to the US Treasury Department, which has the capacity to process and detect suspicious operations.”

“The Europeans have capabilities which are very similar to the Americans to intercept, but on the other hand they don’t have the same resources to process this information. That is why they pass on this raw material so that it can be deciphered,” he said.

In Spain, CNI director General Félix Sanz Roldán has tried to allay concerns by saying that his agency “works within the law.” Sanz Roldán will appear in Congress to explain his organization’s engagement in communications espionage next week, but the session of the Official Secrets Committee will take place behind closed doors.

A member of the Supreme Court is assigned to oversee the Spanish intelligence center’s actions, including approving all home searches, phone taps and authorizing the collection of metadata, SMS messages and emails. But the question still remains whether these actions, which are direct violations of privacy laws in Spain, are being carried out with or without a court order.

According to experts consulted, Spanish law states that any suspension of constitutional guarantees can be applied to individuals, when probable cause for a crime exists, but it can never be ordered for a mass trawl of communications on an indiscriminate basis. In other words, no judge can authorize a phone tap on the Columbus III transatlantic underwater telecommunications cable -- which connects Sicily with the state of Florida and passes through Conil in Cádiz -- that millions of people use each day.


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