Former President Bill Clinton said allegations that the National Security Agency spied on world leaders have damaged relations with U.S. allies and show the need for stricter rules on intelligence gathering.
Clinton said that while he was president, from 1993 to 2001, he had “serious reservations” about eavesdropping on other leaders’ communications. Even so, “we didn’t have the capability then to do a lot of what’s being done today” by U.S. intelligence agencies, he said in an interview broadcast last night on the Fusion television network.
Revelations in media reports about the extent of data and communications swept up by the NSA since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have complicated U.S. relations with allies as President Barack Obama works on a trans-Atlantic trade agreement and other initiatives.
“The data collection has had a damaging effect,” Clinton said in the interview. “And not just in Latin America, but in Europe and Asia. Now, it’s interesting because in some other countries it’s come out that those governments were doing the same thing, or that other governments had given us permission.”
The accusations about spying on foreign citizens and leaders stem from a series of national security leaks from former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum by Russia. The Washington Post and the U.K.-based Guardian are among news organizations that have based reports about U.S. surveillance on documents provided by Snowden.
Among the allegations are that the NSA may have tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone and listened to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s private conversations. Brazil and Germany have since pressed for a United Nations inquiry into U.S. surveillance activities, and Rousseff canceled a planned state visit to Washington scheduled for October.
While defending broad intelligence collection as necessary to defend U.S. security and vowing to review privacy safeguards, Obama and his aides have refused to address allegations that the spying included foreign leaders or answer questions about when and what the president knew.
Clinton said the revelations illustrate the need for a broader public debate on balancing privacy protections with national security.
“What we need here is more transparency and more privacy and more security,” Clinton said. “We’re getting in a position here where people didn’t know what was going on. And the way the data’s been handled, it’s not clear that it’s maximized our security, and it’s perfectly clear that it’s eroded some people’s sense of privacy.”
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