The White House moved to reassure US allies and Americans concerned about the sweeping nature of USsurveillance practices on Monday by acknowledging that more constraints are needed to assure that privacy rights are protected.
Amid a growing uproar in Europe and protest from a key US 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 Barack Obama has come under fierce criticism abroad over allegations that the US 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, potentially imperiling a US-European trade deal and trans-Atlantic information sharing. At least some of the spying appeared to have been done without Obama's knowledge.
California Senator 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 programmes."
The snooping scandal is a direct result of disclosures of US secrets made to media organisations by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor now living in asylum in Russia. Carney told reporters that with new intelligence-gathering capabilities "we recognise 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 US electronic spying as part of a separate White House review of the collection activities of the NSA and other US intelligence agencies.
The review is to be completed by year's end. There was no sign on Monday that the director of the National Security Agency, General 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 due to testify before a House of Representatives committee on Tuesday.
CONFIDENCE IS VANISHED
A European delegation took the concerns about the issue to Capitol Hill, where members of the European Parliament met US 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."
After 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 US 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 also 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 programmes as crucial to protecting US national security and helping thwart militant plots. They have insisted that programmes involving US citizens are carefully overseen by Congress and the US 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 US intelligence procedures is well under way and specifically covers "our closest foreign partners and allies." After the closed-door talks between US lawmakers and the European Parliament delegation, U.S. Representative 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 US 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.