By Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 28 (Reuters) - The White House moved onMonday to reassure U.S. allies and Americans concerned about thesweeping nature of the National Security Agency's surveillancepractices by acknowledging that more constraints are needed toensure that privacy rights are protected.
Amid a growing uproar in Europe and a protest by a key U.S.senator, officials said they would review intelligencecollection programs with an eye to narrowing their scope.
"We need to make sure that we're collecting intelligence ina way that advances our security needs and that we don't just doit because we can," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
President Barack Obama has come under fierce criticismabroad over allegations that the NSA tapped the mobile phone ofGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel and conducted widespreadelectronic snooping in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
The accusations have caused tensions between the UnitedStates and some of its closest traditional allies and couldimperil a U.S.-European trade deal and trans-Atlanticinformation sharing.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairsthe Senate Intelligence Committee, said the White House had toldher "that collection on our allies will not continue, which Isupport."
At least some of the spying appeared to have been donewithout Obama's knowledge.
"It is my understanding that President Obama was not awareChancellor Merkel's communications were being collected since2002," Feinstein said in a statement.
"That is a big problem," she said, adding that oversight ofthe NSA "needs to be strengthened and increased."
Feinstein pledged that her committee will conduct a majorreview into all intelligence collection programs.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House NationalSecurity Council, said a White House review Obama ordered lastsummer has a special emphasis on examining whether the UnitedStates has the "appropriate posture when it comes to heads ofstate," and is looking at how to coordinate with U.S. allies andwhat constraints might be appropriate.
The snooping scandal is a direct result of disclosures ofU.S. secrets made to media organizations by Edward Snowden, aformer NSA contractor now living in asylum in Russia.
Carney told reporters that with new intelligence-gatheringcapabilities "we recognize there needs to be additionalconstraints on how we gather and use intelligence." This couldinclude greater oversight and transparency, he said.
The comment suggested changes were in the offing on thescale of the electronic spying as part of the White House reviewof the collection activities of the NSA and other intelligenceagencies. The review is to be completed by year's end.
In an interview with ABC's Fusion network, Obamaacknowledged that national security operations are beingreassessed to make sure the NSA's growing technical spyingcapability is kept under control.
"We give them policy direction," Obama said. "But what we'veseen over the last several years is their capacities continue todevelop and expand, and that's why I'm initiating now a reviewto make sure that what they're able to do, doesn't necessarilymean what they should be doing."
There was no sign that the director of the NationalSecurity Agency, General Keith Alexander, could be forced outover the controversy, with the White House underscoring thatObama retains full confidence in him and other NSA officials.
Alexander and his deputy, Chris Inglis, are due to retireearly next year, moves unrelated to the Snowden controversies.Both men, along with Director of National Intelligence JamesClapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole are due totestify before a House of Representatives committee on Tuesday.
"CONFIDENCE IS VANISHED"
A European delegation took the concerns about the issue toCapitol Hill, where members of the European Parliament met U.S.lawmakers and spoke of the need to rebuild trust.
"Confidence is vanished," said Elmar Brok, a German memberof the European Parliament. "We have to work hard thatconfidence is re-established between the leaders, between ourpeople."
After Obama and Merkel spoke by phone last week, the WhiteHouse said the United States is not currently tapping her phoneand will not in the future, begging the question of whether ithad been done in the past.
Feinstein's statement appeared to confirm the monitoring atleast of Merkel.
"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leadersof U.S. allies - including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany -let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," she said.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA ended theprogram that involved Merkel after the operation was uncoveredin the White House review that began in the summer. The programalso involved as many as 35 other world leaders, some of whomwere still being monitored, the report said.
The United States and many lawmakers have defended the NSAprograms as crucial to protecting national security and helpingthwart militant plots. They have insisted that programsinvolving U.S. citizens are carefully overseen by Congress andthe legal system.
Still, the Obama administration is well into a review of itsintelligence-gathering procedures. Hayden said "we have alreadymade some decisions through this process and expect to make moreas we continue."
After the closed-door talks between U.S. lawmakers and theEuropean Parliament delegation, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers,a Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, saidthey discussed the need to rebuild trust, the need forcooperation and the need to share intelligence.
"It started to identify some of the differences that we havethat we're going to have to bridge. That's a good thing. That'sa good start and that's why we've pledged to take a delegationback to Brussels to follow up on this conversation," he said.
Rogers, a staunch defender of U.S. intelligence agencies,said there are misperceptions about what they have been doing, although he acknowledged the EU parliamentarians have legitimateconcerns.
"It's important to understand that we're going to have tohave a policy discussion that is bigger than any individualintelligence agency of either Europe or the United States," hesaid.
- Politics & Government
- White House
- Barack Obama
- National Security Agency
- Senator Dianne Feinstein