WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called Friday for the end of his government’s control over masses of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans, and promised in a major and long-expected speech that U.S. intelligence would no longer be listening in on the telephone conversations of leaders of nations that are U.S. friends and allies.
The existence of the U.S. intelligence program that bugged the phones of leaders like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, for example, significantly cooled relations with some of Washington’s key partners abroad. Merkel made her displeasure broadly known, and Rousseff blasted the United States at the United Nations. She canceled a planned trip to the United States that was supposed to culminate in a coveted state dinner at the White House on Oct. 23.
“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” Obama said.
But in a telephone briefing with reporters before the president’s speech, a senior administration official said he could not detail which leaders.
“We frankly can’t be in the business of going individual by individual to determine every foreign leader that we may or may not be collecting intelligence on,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer greater detail about the overhaul.
“So this is not just the case where Angela Merkel is not being subject to surveillance. … We’ve determined that we will not pursue this type of surveillance on the order of dozens of leaders,” the official said.
The revelations of the vast collection of phone and internet data both at home and abroad laid a broad stain on the United States which prides itself as a protector of human rights and policies that guarantee individual privacy.
In addition to promising greater privacy protections at home and among friendly leaders, Obama called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the U.S.
“The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account. This applies to foreign leaders as well,” he said.
For example, documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that US and British intelligence agencies spied on the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Ehud Olmert.
The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel reported in December that Olmert, as well as then-defense minister Ehud Barak, were among more than 1,000 high-profile targets of surveillance in more than 60 countries; the documents were dated between 2008 and 2011. Israel’s Ynet added that the surveillance extended to email intercepts at Netanyahu’s office when he took over from Olmert as prime minister in March, 2009.
Sources in Jerusalem were quoted saying that the Israeli leadership had not “fallen of their chairs” at the news that they were spied upon. Netanyahu “is cautious and suspicious,” does not have a computer in his office, does not use email and does not have a private phone, Israel’s Channel 2 reported, “so they’d have to find other ways” to spy on him.
Olmert said the email address in question was not a particularly sensitive one. Olmert’s office said there was “zero” likelihood of any security damage.
Israel sought clarifications from the US over the affair, Channel 2 said, in order to ensure that the surveillance was not continuing.
Meanwhile, Obama’s moves are more sweeping than many U.S. officials had been anticipating.
In Obama’s highly anticipated speech, after months of revelations about U.S. spying by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden, he said intelligence officials have not intentionally abused the program to invade privacy. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant Snowden amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the U.S., but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.
But Obama also said he believes critics of the program have been right to argue that without proper safeguards, the collection could be used to obtain more information about Americans’ private lives and open the door to more intrusive programs.
Obama said the U.S. had a “special obligation” to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties. As part of his speech, Obama said the government should end its practice of holding phone records of Americans but did not say whether that duty should be given to the telephone companies or a third party. He also said the government should be required to get court approval to study the records.
Obama called the leaks from Snowden, a fugitive who has temporary asylum in Russia, “sensational” revelations of classified spying programs that could impact U.S. operations for years to come.
Although the president has said he welcomed the review of the nation’s sweeping surveillance programs, it’s all but certain the study would not have happened without Snowden’s actions.
Obama warned, however, that “we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.” He added, “We know that the intelligence services of other countries — including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures — are constantly probing our government and private sector networks.”
But he said the U.S. must be held to a higher standard. “No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account,” he said.
Overseas reaction was welcome but wary.
The European commission said it welcomed Obama’s plans but said “trust in EU-U.S. data flows has been affected by revelations on these intelligence programs and needs to be rebuilt. In recognizing the need for action, President Obama has taken important steps towards rebuilding that trust.”
Senior German lawmaker Phillipp Missfelder, a member of Merkel’s party, said: “Obama’s speech is an important contribution toward restoring the trust we’ve lost in our close friend and ally in the past months.”
In Brazil, lawmaker Vanessa Grazziotin, whose Senate panel is investigating U.S. espionage, said: “Besides the words of the American president, the entire world wants concrete actions of respect for the sovereignty of nations.”
Key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain. While Obama wants to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records, he offered no recommendation for where the data should be moved. Instead, he gave the intelligence community and the attorney general 60 days to study options.
He also immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court’s permission before accessing such records.
Privacy advocates say moving the data outside the government’s control could minimize the risk of unauthorized or overly broad searches by the NSA.
The changes are expected to be met with criticism from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing Obama to keep the surveillance programs largely intact.