Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California announced that the Obama administration was halting the eavesdropping on foreign leaders in friendly countries, but the White House is saying that Feinstein’s statement isn’t accurate.
The confusion arose yesterday after the U.S. was plunged into a diplomatic crisis raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who complained that the National Security Agency was listening to her cell phone conversations.
Administration officials say Obama didn’t know about the spying on world leaders, but the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that he did. The magazine said the U.S. had been spying on Merkel’s phone calls since 2002, and that Obama was told about the operation in 2010 but failed to stop it.
The revelations came as a result of leaks from the exiled former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Reuters reported that Merkel, who suspected the surveillance after finding her mobile phone number written on a U.S. document, spoke with Obama and reportedly called for U.S. surveillance to be placed on a new legal footing.
In a statement released on Monday, Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.” She said her committee would begin a “major review of all intelligence-collection programs.”
Feinstein said the White House told her it would cease all intelligence collection in friendly countries, but senior administration officials told the New York Times that was “not accurate.”
However, they did acknowledge that they had made some changes in surveillance policy and planned further changes, particularly in the monitoring of government leaders, but they wouldn’t detail to the Times what those changes were.
Even the discussion of changes is a big deal for the NSA, which has enjoyed nearly unfettered powers to collect data on tens of millions of people around the world, from ordinary citizens to heads of state, including the leaders of Brazil and Mexico.
“We have already made some decisions through this process and expect to make more,” said a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Caitlin M. Hayden.
She said the review would be complete in December.
Aides to Feinstein said she was upset with the NSA for failing to keep the intelligence committee fully apprised of such politically delicate operations as eavesdropping on the conversations of friendly foreign leaders.
“She believes the committee was not adequately briefed on the details of these programs, and she’s frustrated,” a committee staff member told the Times. “In her mind, there were salient omissions.”
The staff member said Feinstein’s review would be “a major undertaking.”
Senior officials from Merkel’s office and the heads of Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies have announced plans to travel to Washington in the coming days to register their anger.
Observers expect them to ask for a no-spying agreement similar to what the United States has with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which are known as the Five Eyes. While the U.S. has historically resisted such agreements, even with friendly governments, officials said they would listen carefully to the Germans.
“We have intel relationships that are already very close,” said a senior official. “There are other types of agreements you could have: cooperation, limits on intelligence, greater transparency. The countries on the top of the list for those are close European allies.”