Obama may ban spying on allied heads of state
Diplomatic crisis over reports of targeting Merkel’s phone deepens
File photo of German chancellor Angela Merkel looking on as US president Barack Obama greets president Dilma Rousseff of Brazil during the Group of 20 Economic Summit in September. Photograph:Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
US president Barack Obama is poised to order the National Security Agency to stop eavesdropping on the leaders of American allies, administration and congressional officials said yesterday.
They were responding to a deepening diplomatic crisis over reports that the agency had for years targeted the mobile phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
The White House informed a leading Democratic lawmaker, Senator Dianne Feinstein , of its plans, which grew out of a broader internal review of intelligence-gathering methods, prompted by the leak of NSA documents by a former contractor, Edward Snowden.
In a statement yesterday, Ms 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.”
Ms Feinstein, who has been a stalwart defender of the administration’s surveillance policies, said her committee would begin a “major review of all intelligence collection programmes.”
The White House said yesterday evening that no final decision had been made on the monitoring of friendly foreign leaders.
But the disclosure that it is moving to prohibit it marks a landmark shift for the NSA, which has had 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.
It is also likely to prompt a fierce debate on what constitutes an American ally. Prohibiting eavesdropping on Dr Merkel’s phone is an easier judgment than, for example, collecting intelligence on the military-backed leaders in Egypt.
“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, adding that the review would be completed in December.
Disclosure of the White House’s proposed action came after the release of Ms Feinstein’s statement yesterday afternoon, in which she asserted that the White House had told her it would cease all intelligence collection in friendly countries.
That statement, White House officials said, was “not accurate,” but the officials acknowledged that they had already made unspecified changes in surveillance policy and planned further changes, particularly in the monitoring of government leaders.
The administration will reserve the right to continue collecting intelligence in friendly countries that pertains to criminal activity, potential terrorist threats, and the proliferation of unconventional weapons, according to several officials.
It also appeared to be leaving itself room in the case of a foreign leader of an ally who turned hostile or whose actions posed a threat to the United States.
The crossed wires between the White House and Ms Feinstein were an indication of how the furore over the NSA’s methods is testing even the administration staunchest defenders.
Aides said the senator’s six-paragraph statement reflected exasperation at 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,” said a committee staff member. “In her mind, there were salient omissions.”