WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House moved yesterday to reassure US allies and Americans concerned about the sweeping nature of the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices by acknowledging that more constraints are needed to ensure that privacy rights are protected.
Amid a growing uproar in Europe and a protest by a key US senator, officials said they would review intelligence collection programmes 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,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
President Barack Obama has come under fierce criticism abroad over allegations that the NSA 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 could imperil a US-European trade deal and trans-Atlantic information sharing.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the White House had told her “that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support.”
At least some of the spying appeared to have been done without Obama’s knowledge.
“It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002,” Feinstein said in a statement.
“That is a big problem,” she said, adding that oversight of the NSA “needs to be strengthened and increased.”
Feinstein pledged that her committee will conduct a major review into all intelligence collection programmes.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said a White House review Obama ordered last summer has a special emphasis on examining whether the United States has the “appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state,” and is looking at how to coordinate with US allies and what constraints might be appropriate.
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 changes were in the offing on the scale of the electronic spying as part of the White House review of the collection activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. The review is to be completed by year’s end.