WASHINGTON, D.C.: United States (US) President Barack Obama said on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) that he would seek to keep United States intelligence-gathering operations in check amid mounting European ire over American snooping on the continent.
As Spain summoned the US ambassador to denounce the mass eavesdropping, the normally loyal head of the US Senate intelligence committee claimed her panel had been kept in the dark.
Washington stands accused of snooping on the telephone and online communications of millions of ordinary citizens in Europe, including world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama refused to corroborate such reports, citing the need to keep intelligence operations classified, but he acknowledged that the way US agencies go about their business was being reassessed.
“We give them policy direction,” he told ABC News.
“But 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.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said lawmakers on her committee had not been briefed on the extent of National Security Agency (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,” Feinstein said.
“It is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed,” she added.
Feinstein, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party who defended the NSA in the recent past, did not disguise her opposition to those 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 emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” she said.
The Spanish government, meanwhile, called in Ambas-sador James Costos to explain the latest allegations.
A senior Spanish foreign ministry official met with the envoy hours after the El Mundo daily published a classified document purportedly showing that US intelligence services tracked 60.5 million Spanish telephone calls in one month.
The NSA recorded the origin and destination of the calls and their duration but not the content, said El Mundo, which printed a classified graph showing 30 days of call tracing up to January 8 this year.
The newspaper said such systematic trawling of huge volumes of digital information—or metadata—would include intercepting personal details through Internet web browsers, e-mails and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
“Spain conveyed to the United States the importance of pre-serving the climate of trust that governs bilateral relations and of knowing the scale of practices that, if true, are inappropriate and unacceptable between countries that are partners and friends,” the Spanish foreign ministry said in a statement.
With transatlantic tensions on the boil, members of a European delegation met Monday in the US Capitol with House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, who sought to soothe injured European feelings and said the two sides “made some progress” in the talks.
A British member of the European Parliament, Claude Moraes, said it was vital to begin a healing process but also to reassure Europe that surveillance abuses do not persist.
“Trust has to be rebuilt. We need to figure out why this kind of mass surveillance activity is happening,” Moraes said.
Elmar Brok, chairman of the parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, was more critical of the US overstepping its bounds.
“It is not acceptable, for example, this espionage on Chancellor Merkel and others since more than 10 years,” said Brok, who believed the eavesdropping on the German administration “is a breach of German law.”