US President Barack Obama may ban US spying on allied leaders as part of a review of the country’s intelligence gathering, a senior Obama administration official said yesterday amid a diplomatic uproar over the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance ability.
A week after reports surfaced that the eavesdropping extended to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, Obama is under pressure to take steps to reassure Americans and US allies.
A senior administration official said Washington has made some individual changes in eavesdropping practices, but as yet had not made across-the-board policy changes such as ending intelligence collection that might be aimed at allies.
The official said the White House is considering a ban on intelligence collection aimed at allied leaders. A White House review that Obama ordered after NSA documents were made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“There are a number of efforts underway that are designed to increase transparency, to work with [the US] Congress to look at reform to the Patriot Act [and] to look at ways we can increase oversight and increase constraint on the authorities provided by these programs,” presidential spokesman Jay Carney said at a news briefing on Monday.
Obama has come under fierce criticism abroad over allegations the NSA tapped Merkel’s phone and conducted widespread electronic snooping in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
At least some of the spying appeared to have been done without Obama’s knowledge.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, said on Monday that the committee will conduct a major review of all intelligence collection programs.
The normally loyal Feinstein said lawmakers on her committee had not been briefed on the extent of NSA activity and announced a “major review” of spy operations.
“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.
Feinstein, a member of the Democratic Party who has defended the NSA in the recent past, did not disguise her opposition to the policies that have led to a deterioration in transatlantic ties.
“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or e-mails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” she said.
Feinstein said it would be a “big problem” if Obama had not been made aware that Merkel’s calls were being collected, saying “the president should be required to approve any collection of this sort.”
Obama has refused to corroborate the snooping reports, citing the need to keep intelligence operations classified, but he acknowledged that the way US agencies go about their business was being reassessed.
“What we’ve seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand, and that’s why I’m initiating now a review to make sure that what they’re able to do doesn’t necessarily mean what they should be doing,” he told ABC News.