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Obama defends intelligence gathering as allies protest

Personal contact crucial, says Obama.

Personal contact crucial, says Obama.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — President Obama defended US intelligence-gathering tactics Monday following a report that the United States conducted electronic monitoring of European Union offices and computer networks.

In Asia, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was taken by surprise when EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton questioned him about the reported eavesdropping.

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The German magazine Der Spiegel said Sunday that the conduct was described in portions of documents from 2010 provided by Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor whose earlier revelations about international NSA surveillance have caused a firestorm of questions and criticism in the United States.

The report said the agency had placed listening devices in EU offices in Washington and New York, monitored phone lines at the EU’s Brussels headquarters, and breached its computer network.

Der Spiegel said the NSA described the 27-country bloc as a ‘‘target.’’ The report has prompted outrage from top European officials.

At a news conference Monday during his African tour, Obama said he has asked aides to look more closely at the revelations in the story, and he declined to comment on the specifics.

But more generally, the president said all spy agencies gather information beyond that which is publicly available from large media organizations.

‘‘They are seeking additional insight beyond what’s available through open sources,’’ he said. ‘‘And if that weren’t the case, then there would 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.’’

The president insisted that there was nothing sinister about the NSA’s methods, emphasizing that any information he is given is less important than his personal conversations with European leaders.

European officials and politicians have reacted furiously to the spying reports, with some saying the revelations may harm efforts that began this month to negotiate a transatlantic free trade zone, a high foreign policy priority for the Obama administration.

‘‘We cannot accept this type of behavior between partners and allies,’’ French President Francois Hollande said Monday, Le Figaro reported. ‘‘We ask that it stop immediately.’’

Harlem Desir, the chairman of Hollande’s Socialist Party, said that the allegations, if confirmed, would ‘‘naturally’’ have an impact on trade negotiations with the United States.

In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she is ‘‘alienated’’ by the alleged eavesdropping. ‘‘We are no longer in the Cold War,’’ spokesman Steffen Siebert said. US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for consultations on the issue.

The allegations made by Der Spiegel are the latest in a string of revelations on the tactics of the NSA, which also has been collecting massive amounts of Americans’ cellphone records and monitoring computer records of big Internet companies such as Facebook and Google.

Snowden is presumed to be in Russia. Obama declined to confirm a report that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have asked their law enforcement agencies to negotiate a return of Snowden to the United States.

Obama also sought to reaffirm the alliance between the United States and the European Union.

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