Damaged by snooping, U.S. tries to rebuild trust with allies
WASHINGTON — The White House moved to reassure allies and Americans concerned about the sweeping nature of surveillance practices on Monday by acknowledging that more constraints are needed to assure privacy rights.
Amid a growing uproar in Europe and protest from a key U.S. lawmaker, officials said they would review intelligence collection programs with an eye to narrowing their scope.
“We need to make sure that we're collecting intelligence in a way that advances our security needs and that we don't just do it because we can,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
President Obama has come under fierce criticism abroad over allegations that the National Security Agency tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and conducted widespread electronic snooping in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
The accusations have caused tensions between the United States and some of its closest traditional allies and potentially imperiled a U.S.-European trade deal and trans-Atlantic information sharing.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel's communications were being collected since 2002.
“That is a big problem,” Feinstein said in a statement in which she said oversight of the NSA “needs to strengthened and increased.”
Feinstein pledged her committee will conduct “a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”
The snooping scandal is a direct result of disclosures of U.S. secrets made to media organizations by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor now living in asylum in Russia.
Carney told reporters that with new intelligence-gathering capabilities, “we recognize there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence.” This could include greater oversight and transparency, he said.
The comment suggested some changes were in the offing on the scale of electronic spying as part of a separate White House review of the collection activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. The review is to be completed by year's end.
There was no sign that the director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, could be forced out over the controversy, with the White House underscoring that Obama retains full confidence in him and other NSA officials. Alexander and his deputy, Chris Inglis, are due to retire early next year, moves unrelated to the Snowden controversies. Both men, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole are scheduled to testify before a House of Representatives committee on Tuesday.
A European delegation took the concerns about the issue to Capitol Hill, where members of the European Parliament met lawmakers and spoke of the need to rebuild trust.
“Confidence is vanished,” said Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament. “We have to work hard that confidence is re-established between the leaders, between our people.”
When Obama and Merkel spoke by phone last week, the White House said the United States is not currently tapping her phone and will not in the future, begging the question of whether it had been done in the past.
Feinstein's statement appeared to confirm the monitoring of at least Merkel.
“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” she said, without elaborating further.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the NSA ended the program that involved Merkel after the operation was uncovered in the White House review that began during the summer. The program involved as many as 35 other world leaders, some of whom were still being monitored, the report said.
The United States and many lawmakers have defended the NSA programs as crucial to protecting national security and helping thwart militant plots. They have insisted that programs involving citizens are carefully overseen by Congress and the legal system.
Still, the Obama administration is conducting a review of its intelligence-gathering procedures. White House national security adviser Susan Rice said the review is “rigorous and ongoing.”
The White House said the review of intelligence procedures is well under way and specifically covers “our closest foreign partners and allies.”
After the closed-door talks between lawmakers and the European Parliament delegation, Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said they discussed the need to rebuild trust, the need for cooperation and the need to share intelligence.
“It started to identify some of the differences that we have that we're going to have to bridge. That's a good thing. That's a good start and that's why we've pledged to take a delegation back to Brussels to follow up on this conversation,” he said.
Rogers, a staunch defender of intelligence agencies, said there are misperceptions about what they have been doing, although he acknowledged the EU parliamentarians have legitimate concerns.
“It's important to understand that we're going to have to have a policy discussion that is bigger than any individual intelligence agency of either Europe or the United States,” he said.