WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is considering ending spying on allied heads of state, a senior administration official said as the White House grappled with the fallout from revelations that the U.S. has eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The revelations about National Security Agency monitoring of Merkel were the latest in a months-long spying scandal that has strained longstanding alliances with some of America’s closest partners. Earlier Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a “total review of all intelligence programs.”
Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement that the White House had informed her that “collection on our allies will not continue.”
The administration official said that statement was not accurate, but added that some unspecified changes already had been made and more were being considered, including terminating the collection of communications from friendly heads of state.
As a result of the spying allegations, German officials said Monday that the United States could lose access to an important law enforcement tool used to track terrorist money flows.
As possible leverage, German authorities cited last week’s non-binding resolution by the European Parliament to suspend a post-9/11 agreement allowing the Americans access to bank transfer data to track the flow of terrorist money.
A top German official said she believed the Americans were using the information obtained from Merkel to gather economic intelligence apart from terrorism and that the agreement known as SWIFT should be suspended.
Feinstein said while the intelligence community has kept her apprised of other issues, like the court orders on telephone record collection, intelligence officials failed to brief her on how they followed foreign leaders.
Her statement follows reports based on new leaks from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden indicating that the NSA listened to Merkel and 34 other foreign leaders.
“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies – including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany – let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” Feinstein said.
She added that the U.S. should not be “collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers” unless in an emergency with approval of the president.
European Union officials who are in Washington to meet with lawmakers ahead of White House talks said U.S. surveillance of their people could affect negotiations over a U.S.-Europe trade agreement. They said European privacy must be better protected.
Many officials in Germany and other European governments have made clear, however, that they don’t favor suspending the U.S.-EU trade talks that began last summer because both sides stand to gain so much through the proposed deal, especially against competition from China and other emerging markets.
As tensions with European allies escalate, the top U.S. intelligence official declassified dozens of pages of top secret documents in an apparent bid to show the NSA was acting legally when it gathered millions of Americans’ phone records.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said he was following the president’s direction to make public as much information as possible about how U.S. intelligence agencies spy under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Monday’s release of documents focused on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the bulk collection of U.S. phone records.
The document release is part of an administration-wide effort to preserve the NSA’s ability to collect bulk data, which it says is key to tracking key terror suspects, but which privacy activists say is a breach of the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure of evidence from innocent Americans.
The release of the documents comes ahead of a House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday on FISA reform.
The documents support administration testimony that the NSA worked to operate within the law and fix errors when they or their systems overreached.