WASHINGTON: The White House said Monday that some constraints were needed in American surveillance practices in the wake of embarrassing revelations about the sweeping nature of U.S. spying.
The comment came after President Barack Obama drew heavy criticism over accusations that the National Security Agency had tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and conducted widespread electronic snooping in France, Italy and Spain.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that with new intelligence-gathering capabilities, “We recognize there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence.”
Carney’s comment, along with a tweet from National Security Adviser Susan Rice that a “proper balance” is needed, suggested some changes might be in the offing on the scale of U.S. electronic spying as part of a review of the collection activities of the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
The review is to be completed by year’s end.
Obama has full confidence in the director of the National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, and other NSA officials but there must be a balance between the need to gather intelligence and the need to protect the privacy of people, Carney said.
Carney’s comments came the same day Spanish newspaper El Mundo published a document that it said showed the NSA spied on more than 60 million phone calls in Spain in one month alone.
Spain summoned the U.S. ambassador in Madrid to express its displeasure over the reports of spying on allies.
El Mundo said the bar graph document titled “ Spain – Last 30 days” showed daily call traffic volume between Dec. 10, 2012, and Jan. 8, 2013. It said the NSA monitored the numbers and duration of the calls, but not their content. The document did not show the numbers.
El Mundo said the Metadata system used by the NSA could also monitor emails and phone texts, although these were not shown on the graph.
The newspaper said the document was one those leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is wanted by the United States but has been granted asylum in Russia.
U.S. Ambassador James Costos, who was summoned by Spain last week to discuss reports that Spain had been targeted, met with Foreign Ministry officials for 45 minutes Monday.
Afterward, the ministry made no direct reference to the El Mundo report but called on U.S. authorities to hand over all the necessary information concerning “supposed eavesdropping carried out in Spain.”
A European delegation, meanwhile, took the concerns about spying to Capitol 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 member of the European Parliament. “We have to work hard that confidence is re-established between the leaders, between our people.”
After Obama and Merkel spoke by phone last week, the White House said the United States was not currently tapping her phone and would not in the future, begging the question of whether it had been done in the past.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that the NSA ended the program that involved Merkel after the operation was uncovered in a review that began during the summer. The program also involved as many as 35 other world leaders, some of whom were still being monitored, the report said.
The United States and many lawmakers have defended the NSA programs as crucial to protecting U.S. national security and helping thwart militant plots. They insist the programs are carefully overseen by Congress and the U.S. legal system.
Still, the Obama administration is conducting a review of its intelligence-gathering procedures. Rice said the review was “rigorous and ongoing.”
On Capitol Hill, U.S. lawmakers held talks behind closed doors with the European Parliament delegation. U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said afterward that they discussed the need to rebuild trust, the need for cooperation and the need to share intelligence.
“It started to identify some of the differences that we have that we’re going to have to bridge. That’s a good thing. That’s a good start and that’s why we’ve pledged to take a delegation back to Brussels to follow up on this conversation,” he said.
Rogers, a staunch defender of U.S. intelligence agencies, said there were misperceptions about what they have been doing, although he acknowledged that the EU parliamentarians had legitimate concerns.
“It’s important to understand that we’re going to have to have a policy discussion that is bigger than any individual intelligence agency of either Europe or the United States,” he said.