The Obama administration may curtail eavesdropping on leaders of U.S. allies amid a growing backlash over years of alleged surveillance of foreign leaders, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said that she was told by the White House that data “collection on our allies will not continue.” The California Democrat said her committee will conduct an inquiry into U.S. spying that has roiled ties with nations including Germany, France and Brazil.
“A total review of all intelligence programs is necessary,” Feinstein said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
White House officials today refused to comment on Feinstein’s remarks, saying that a review of surveillance programs will be completed by the end of the year.
“Some decisions have been made about our intelligence gathering,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “but we’re not going to get into details.”
Revelations about the extent of data and communications swept up by the National Security Agency since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have complicated U.S. relations with allies, particularly in Europe where the administration is seeking a trans-Atlantic trade agreement. Germany and Brazil are testing support at the United Nations for a resolution expressing deep concern about the spying.
In the latest twist, the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the collection of telephone records that has drawn outrage in France and Spain was conducted by intelligence services in those countries and shared with the U.S. National Security Agency.
Carney declined to address “specific alleged activities” of the U.S. or its allies.
The surveillance of citizens in France and Spain are separate from reports that the U.S. collected telephone records of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While defending broad intelligence collection as necessary to defend U.S. security and vowing to review privacy safeguards, Obama and his aides repeatedly refused to directly address allegations that the spying included foreign leaders or answer questions about when and what the president knew.
“The national security operations, generally, have one purpose and that is to make sure the American people are safe and that I’m making good decisions,” Obama said in an interview broadcast yesterday by Fusion, a joint cable channel of ABC News and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision.
Carney said the administration review of surveillance “has an emphasis” on the way the U.S. deals with heads of other governments, while refusing to say whether has collected surveillance on allies in the past or would in the future.
Feinstein said she is “totally opposed” to collecting intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies unless the nation is engaged in hostilities or there is an emergency need for such surveillance. She said Congress hasn’t been adequately informed about the programs and called for stronger oversight.
The controversy stems from a series of national security leaks from former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum by Russia.
James Andrew Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy center, said the White House is adopting a traditional approach to the exposure of a secret program that affects allies.
“In espionage, the first rule is don’t get caught, and the second rule is when you get caught don’t admit to it,” Lewis said. “Decades of practice say this is how you react to this sort of thing. You don’t admit to it in public.”
Lewis, a former foreign-service officer and specialist on technology transfer, said it’s likely that Obama didn’t know about eavesdropping on Merkel and other foreign leaders.
“Usually, presidents ask a question to their intelligence briefers and the briefers come back with an answer, and the president doesn’t ask, ‘How did you get this?’”
The regular release of intelligence files taken by Snowden may keep feeding the furor over spying and there is potential damage to the U.S. relationship with Germany and other allies, Lewis said. “We’re going to have to be more active if we’re going to get this under control.”
German lawmakers yesterday called for an inquiry while Spain issued its own condemnation of the spying. Delegations from the European Union and Germany are preparing to meet in Washington with U.S. officials to discuss their concerns.
European countries also are considering cutting the U.S. Treasury Department’s access to bank-data transfers used in counter-terror investigations.
Germany and Brazil also are working with other nations on a draft resolution for the UN General Assembly that would express deep concern at possible human rights violations and abuses during extra-territorial surveillance or interception of communications in foreign jurisdictions, said a UN diplomat involved in the drafting, who asked to not be named due to sensitivity of the matter.