Washington (AFP) – President Barack Obama is considering whether to ban U.S. spy agencies from eavesdropping on allied leaders, a senior official said Tuesday, following outrage in Europe over National Security Agency snooping.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the step was under consideration, but that no policy decisions had yet been finalized, as Obama awaits results of several already announced reviews into U.S. surveillance practices.
The Obama administration was under increasing political heat at home and abroad, as revelations based on leaks from fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden threatened to sour ties with allies and complicate its foreign policy goals.
The senior official, however, pushed back on a claim by powerful Senate select intelligence committee chairman Dianne Feinstein that “collection on our allies will not continue.”
The official said that statement was not accurate, though Feinstein’s remarks were unspecific enough to leave considerable doubt as to the true intentions of the administration regarding snooping on foreign leaders.
The officials said that while some changes had been made to U.S. intelligence gathering in the wake of claims that U.S. spies tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, there had yet been no across-the-board changes, including a decision to halt intelligence sweeps aimed at all foreign allies.
One adjustment Obama does appear to have made is to halt surveillance on Merkel’s cellphone.
Reports have said he did not know about the decade-long surveillance of the German chancellor, whom he considers a friend, and stopped it when he found out.
White House officials said Washington will not and is not tapping Merkel’s phone — leaving the clear implication that it had done so in the past.
Feinstein, a Democrat, had made waves on Monday with a strong denunciation of U.S. spying on foreign leaders — and complained her committee, which is supposed to provide oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies, was not informed of the program.
“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 United States took a new battering in Europe Tuesday when Spain’s public prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into its reported mass eavesdropping on millions of telephone calls to determine if a crime was committed.
The move came a day after the U.S. ambassador to Madrid was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear a demand for explanations.