WASHINGTON — Under mounting pressure from new revelations that the United States collected the telephone data of tens of millions of Europeans, the Obama administration on Monday said that there is a need for new constraints on U.S. intelligence-gathering operations and a top senator announced that the spying on U.S. allies would stop.
In an interview aired late Monday by a new cable television outlet, Fusion, President Barack Obama declined to discuss the communications monitoring operations of the National Security Agency, including whether the NSA tapped the telephones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 34 other world leaders.
The storm battering Obama over the revelations of U.S. data-gathering and communications monitoring in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Brazil showed no sign of abating. Outlined in top-secret documents leaked to news media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the disclosures are bruising ties with some of the closest U.S. allies, adding to the domestic outcry over the NSA’s collection of data from millions of Americans’ communications as part of an effort to unearth terrorist plots.
“Obama must feel very uneasy and embarrassed right now,” said Hans-Christian Stroebele, the longest serving member of the German Parliament’s intelligence committee.
Administration officials, however, continued fending off questions about details of the operations, including when they began and – in the case of the tapping of the phones of Merkel and the other world leaders – how high up the command chain they were authorized.
There were complaints that the administration has been keeping the U.S. intelligence community’s congressional overseers in the dark as well. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, announced that the panel would conduct “a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”
“It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002. That is a big problem,” she added in a statement. “The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support. But as far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing.”
“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,” Feinstein said. “Therefore our oversight needs to be strengthened and increased.”
“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies . . . let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” she said.
The White House denied that it hasn’t discussed the issue with Feinstein.
“We consult regularly with Chairman Feinstein,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “I’m not going to go into the details of those private discussions, nor am I going to comment on assertions made in the senator’s statement today about U.S. foreign intelligence activities.”
In the latest revelations, two Spanish newspapers reported that a document leaked by Snowden showed that the NSA collected data – locations and phone numbers – but not the content of 60 million telephone calls made in Spain between December 2012 and early January.
U.S. Ambassador to Spain James Costas was summoned by Spanish officials to discuss the revelations. He later issued a statement in which he acknowledged, “Ultimately, the United States needs to balance the important role that these programs play in protecting our national security and protecting the security of our allies with legitimate privacy concerns.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney sounded a similar theme, telling reporters that a review of U.S. intelligence-gathering operations that Obama ordered this summer is aimed at ensuring that “we are properly accounting for both the security of our citizens and our allies and the privacy concerns shared by Americans and citizens around the world.”
With new technology available for intelligence-gathering, he said, the administration recognizes that “there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence.”
“Just because we’ve made these extraordinary technological advances that give us greater capacities, 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,” he said.
The review “will look at, among other issues, some of the very specific things with regards to intelligence-gathering, including matters that deal with heads of state and other governments,” Carney said. “When it comes to the relationship that we have with various allies, this is obviously something that has been of concern, and we are working to address those concerns diplomatically.”
He noted that a European parliamentary delegation now visiting Washington would be discussing the issue with officials from the U.S. intelligence community and the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Homeland Security.
The delegation is looking to secure strong protections for communications data as part of a landmark U.S.-European Union trade deal now being negotiated. Its leader, Elmar Brok, a member of Merkel’s party, said that a failure to secure those protections could threaten the talks.
“We are fighting for the rights of our citizens,” Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill, where the delegation discussed the NSA scandal with lawmakers.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the administration wasn’t oblivious to the “challenges” the disclosures have created. U.S. officials, she said, are explaining to angry foreign counterparts the NSA operations and the internal review.
The diplomatic moves, however, appeared to be doing little to patch up the rifts over the disclosures that have sparked a media outcry in Europe. One meme that went viral on social media was a doctored photo showing Obama peeping through a window at Merkel as she tries to cover herself with a bath towel after a shower.
“The disclosures seem to be designed tactically to maximize their impact and the resulting awkwardness for the U.S. government,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. U.S. officials “are going to have to evaluate how important these programs are to near-term national security and, if they’re essential, then they need to make that argument to foreign governments: ‘It’s not voyeurism, it’s international security.’”
The Spanish newspaper reports followed a revelation by the French newspaper Le Monde that the NSA collected the data of more than 70 million phone calls made in France between December 2012 and January.
In Italy, digital library host Cryptome reported that the NSA monitored 46 million phone calls in Italy during the same time period.
McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed from Berlin.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Hans-Christian Stroebele.